Every Vote (Kind of) Counts

If the number of disqualified ballots in the August primary is any indication, King County is in for a repeat of its 2004 recount crisis.

Every vote counts, but every vote can’t be counted–not in King County, anyway. This is why we still don’t know the true intent of voters in the chaotic, twice-recounted 2004 gubernatorial race between Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi, and why it’s likely we won’t know which candidate a majority of voters really intended to elect in next month’s rematch, either.

According to records obtained by Seattle Weekly, county voter invalidations have steadily risen since 2004, when about 3,800 of 568,000 general-election mail-in ballots were disqualified because of signature and mail-deadline failures. Those were votes that could have swung an election Gregoire won by a mere 133-vote statewide margin. In the most recent election, the August 2008 King County primary, the disqualification rate was more than double the 2004 general figure, even though fewer people voted. About 9,400 of 311,000 mail-in votes could not be counted because they arrived late or lacked verifiable signatures.

Next month, a record 800,000 of the county’s 1 million voters—one-third of the state’s total number of active registered voters—are expected to turn out, with most of them utilizing the relatively simple absentee mail-in process: marking a ballot, inserting it inside a security envelope, inserting that inside a signed return envelope, and mailing it by Election Day (envelopes can also be dropped off at polling places). But given the rising invalidation trend, and with another dramatic Rossi-Gregoire finish looming Nov. 4 (see Aimee Curl’s “Why Can’t She Beat This Bozo?,” Oct. 1), thousands of well-intended and possibly decisive ballots are likely to again go uncounted.

“Even with inserts in mail ballots calling attention to any unusual issues for voting, and with instructions on the ballots, we still experience a surprising number of voters failing to follow instructions,” says King County Elections Director Sherril Huff, who thinks that more diligent oversight by her department contributes to the increasing disqualifications. Besides the signature and mail-deadline problems, 17 primary voters sent in empty envelopes. Others failed to fill in the circle next to their preferred candidate’s name, instead checking it, putting an X inside it, or circling the circle, leaving it unreadable by electronic tabulators.

Still others were disqualified by scribbling complaints and epithets on their ballots. “One of the issues that is always sad,” says Huff, “is when voters write us a note on their ballot, or make a correction and then sign their name to verify the statement or correction.” According to state law, “A ballot is invalid and no votes on that ballot may be counted if it is…marked so as to identify the voter.”

Some also failed to observe a requirement that voters have heartbeats. In an echo of 2004, 20 of the invalid August voters were found to be dead. Some disqualified ballots may have been illegally cast by family members or friends, while others might have involved voters accidentally killed off by the Social Security Death Index, which sometimes supplies misinformation to the state voter registration database, says Huff. Many of those voters discovered their untimely passing after showing up to vote at a local polling place. “If they are not in the poll book,” says Huff, “they are given a provisional ballot, and then we follow up.”

Huff says new operations and oversight procedures, as well as an extended certification deadline this year, will improve vote verification. But there will be more voters than ever next month in King County. The Gregoire-Rossi rematch and an historic White House battle between John McCain and Barack Obama have helped push registration of new King County voters to an average of 15,000 every month this year. Officials were amazed to see 19,200 new registrants last month; then 21,300 signed up in the first three weeks of September alone. Come the Oct. 4 registration deadline (new state residents have until Oct. 20), the county expects to have added more than 140,000 new voters this year, which would mark a slight increase over 2004.

One of the biggest factors in avoiding a repeat of the 2004 recount turmoil will be the county’s new elections center. From the public area on the second floor of the facility on Southwest Grady Way in Renton, an observer sees a sweeping assembly line of desks, video screens, Pitney Bowes mail-sorting equipment, and ballot tabulators from Premier Election Solutions—formerly Diebold, whose electronics have been suspected of miscounts and hacker vulnerabilities across the U.S. in recent years.

“The idea was to be as transparent as possible,” says King County Elections spokesperson Megan Coppersmith. Security experts from the gambling-casino industry were brought in for consultation. The result is 59 security cameras, secured ballot-storage cages, a biometric fingerprint-scan entry system, and ear-splitting alarms. The county thinks Premier’s vote-tallying system is secure now, although the supplier recently admitted to a flaw in its software that may have failed to record some votes across the U.S. in past years. Premier has since issued a programming patch.

Two-member teams, with paid political party observers watching over their shoulders, will try to ascertain voter intent whenever markings aren’t clear or the ballot is damaged. (Some arrive with coffee stains, for example, while others appear to have been crumpled up in frustration). Ballots that can’t agreeably be decoded end up before the county’s three-member Canvassing Board, which makes a final determination.

Though the sleek, 94,000-square-foot office building opened just this past December, it is all about 2004. Back then, when county elections operations were ineffectively scattered around separate locations, votes were tallied whenever someone stumbled over a bin of uncounted ballots. Votes memorably flowed in from graveyards and kennels; others were cast by ineligible felons. But now, officials think they have weeded out most unqualified voters and improved their recount system. It will improve next year, too, they say, when all but a few polling places will be closed and King and Pierce counties switch to all-mail voting, as the state’s 37 other counties already have.

Just how well this is working will become evident at about 7 a.m. Election Day, when ballot tabulation begins. Mail-voter verification starts three weeks earlier— the signatures on return envelopes are compared for a match by election workers using side-by-side computer-screen views. That’s a laborious process that continues beyond Election Day, along with the tallying of votes collected on memory cards from 392 polling places and fed into the center’s computer. The county is hiring more than 4,000 poll workers and 650 temps for its elections center operations.

Though county voters returned less than half the 677,000 ballots mailed out in August, voter interest doesn’t appear to be lacking for the November vote, with gender, age, and race among the hot-button factors swirling around the contests for both the state’s and the country’s top office.

“The good news is we will exceed 80 percent [turnout],” Huff predicts.”I just wish we could keep all of the voters who cast a ballot in November as active voters consistently.”