The Latest Returns

How we botched the gubernatorial election of 2004, and why there's no end in sight.

Behind the microphone, Dean Logan was just getting his road show, the 2004 Election Revue, under way. Sure, a lot had gone awry with last year’s vote. But his King County Records, Elections, and Licensing Services Division had success, too, Logan was saying. From the back row at Shoreline Community Center, an audience member was in apparent disagreement: “Bullshit!” he boomed. Logan, the county elections director, paused while some in the audience clapped and others shushed the critic. “So we experienced a series of challenges,” Logan continued, nodding to the back row, “like just now.”

Few laughed. He was, after all, talking about a head-scratching election in which 95 likely valid votes will not be counted, because they were temporarily lost, and 99 invalid votes, illegally cast by convicted state felons, have been counted. That and a litany of other deficiencies in King County’s democratic process are the continuation of three years of elections-department breakdowns under the watch of Democratic King County Executive Ron Sims, and it’s far from over. Absentee ballots still seem to pop up around the elections office—someone opens a drawer and another precinct reports. Officials have already confirmed that the dead and dishonest cast potentially deciding votes in the 2004 gubernatorial race, which was awarded to Democrat Christine Gregoire by 129 votes out of 2.8 million after three ballot counts. Hundreds more votes could still turn out to have been cast by untracked federal felons. As task forces continue to form, the whole screwball mess sails toward a court hearing next week and tedious appeals thereafter. The absolutely last, almost positively final November 2004 vote cast is expected to be in by, say, November 2005?

With this fire drill as his backdrop, Logan, 37, a wonkish, bespectacled onetime Democrat in a nonpartisan office, strives to stay on message. A former state elections director who is paid $127,000 for the county job he assumed in September 2003, Logan insists he’s being up front about his department’s failures. “I share the frustration of the public,” he says, acknowledging a “level of carelessness” by some employees in the ballot-counting exercise. At recent town hall meetings sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Logan has discussed his recently released 2004 Elections Report, giving scant notice to the 129-vote elephant in the room—the one that turned Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi into a full-time Realtor. At every stop, from the suburbs to Seattle over the past few weeks, Logan has spread the gospel that, yes, the elections office has sinned but so have the politicians and voters—that these were collective failures from which a bipartisan miracle will arise. During his short tenure as elections boss, Logan’s troubled department has fixed a computer system that was “tied together by shoestrings,” as he puts it, has grappled with a record-setting voter overload, and has hand counted 900,000-some ballots in 16 days with 300 people watching. A smattering of applause wouldn’t be unwelcome.

Not gonna happen. Logan’s critics, mostly Republican, see dead people, mostly Democrats, lining up at the polls. Behind them are a cabal of felons, the homeless, and the anonymous with a ballot in each hand. Detractors have at least 745 reasons why Logan and boss Sims allowed this to happen. That’s the number of deceased people, criminals, double-voters, or noncitizens who, Republicans claim in a lawsuit against counties and the state, illegally cast King County ballots in 2004. The GOP isn’t about to let Sims neatly tie it up with the blue- ribbon review panel he just appointed, especially after Logan’s seemingly final word on the subject in a self-evaluation called the 2004 Elections Report. “What a joke,” said one Shoreline audience member. “His people investigating his people!” Said another: “We need to see people in prison for this.”

Dean Logan speaking in Shoreline

(Rick Anderson)

Logan listened but didn’t respond. Whether or not incarceration is the solution, that remark at the Shoreline meeting raises some interesting questions seemingly lost in the probes, litigation, and spin of the closest statewide election in Washington history: Can any one person be blamed for this mess? Who should clean it up? Who can clean it up? Who would want to clean it up? Logan had already tried, and look what happened.

Fifteen days after the Nov. 2 election, Logan certified it—as required by law, he says. “Not true!” shouted a Shoreline audience member. At least one earlier county election was not certified in a timely way because of irregularities. Besides, weren’t votes still coming in? How can Logan claim he’s correcting a system that’s still breaking down? The other day, it was the discovery of 95 uncounted ballots in storage bins, which will not be counted unless a court rules otherwise, Logan tells me. The discovery also led to a concession that one ballot count, his office’s final Mail Ballot Report, was flat wrong. That exposed another flaw in the tabulation process: Rather than tally absentee ballots when they arrive at the elections office, so the number can later be inventoried, the county based its bottom line on those eventually counted—in essence, the number of ballots it could find in the office.

Some county workers knew in November they had lost track of some ballots, but, Logan says, word of that reached his desk only recently. He transferred some workers, then put four on paid leave after another snafu: failing to insert absentee ballots in envelopes sent to some voters for an upcoming all-mail Valley General Hospital District levy election. The issue of staff incompetence is a touchy subject. Civil servants have nearly ironclad job protection and extensive rights of appeal to prevent their dismissal or even demotion, a subjective process to begin with. To some of his critics, Sims hasn’t acted forcefully to weed out failures. In 2002, when things went wrong, he fired two elections-department heads but left the ailing body intact. Actually, he didn’t can the elections superintendent, Julie Anne Kempf, until a few days after a Seattle Times editorial chided that Sims “must stop passing blame, move beyond apologies and restore the integrity of his elections office.” A few months later in 2003, elections chief Bob Roegner followed Kempf out the door, and Sims promised a complete fix, claiming, “It will never, ever again happen.”

Well, at least not until the next vote. But who could have known 2004’s perfect election storm was gathering, asks Kurt Triplett, Sims’ chief of staff and elections point man. “We took the actions to fix what we thought was the problem at the time—management and the system,” he says. “Now, all the great things we have done were lost because of the tight margin of the governor’s race.” Nonetheless, he insists, “Even though everything that could go wrong did, a thousand things went right . . . the kinds of errors that occurred are the normal kind and size in every election. There’s just never been this spotlight on it” because of the tight race and recounts.

Logan says his department will, in fact, fire any of the workers who are proved to have screwed up, and Triplett says Sims seconds that. “The lost 94 ballots”—changed last week to 95 when another ballot was found—”that was the first error where we felt like we could actually identify the people who have some responsibility for how the process should have worked,” says Triplett. “You can fire career civil servants, but you have to have due process and show cause. . . . If the cause is sufficient, they’ll be fired; if not, they’ll be disciplined.” King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, Triplett says, “who has had two prosecutors watching every step of the way on this thing since the election, says there is absolutely no indication of any intent of fraud or any kind of corruption.” Criminal acts have yet to be ruled out, however.

Meanwhile, in addition to a $350,000 outside audit approved last week by the County Council, Sims’ review panel has begun its work, the goal of which, says Chair Cheryl Scott, “is restoring trust and credibility” to the county’s election process. And there might be another review by Logan’s former boss, Secretary of State Sam Reed, who was heard to moan when the 95-vote debacle surfaced. A gubernatorial election-reform task force has already completed a review, and the Democratic-controlled Legislature last week passed a number of reforms, though it failed to back a GOP request that voters show only a picture ID at the polls. (Utility bills, for example, suffice as proper identification now.) The GOP plan could have disenfranchised 48,000 registered voters, mostly seniors, who don’t have photo IDs, Dems say. Critically, lawmakers also failed to pass a provision requiring a revote within 60 days if a candidate’s winning margin is less than an irresolvable discrepancy between the number of voters and votes cast. “People just want things to add up!” says a frustrated Rep. Jim Clements, R-Selah.

King County Executive Ron Sims.

(Jay Vidheecharoen)

With all this scrutiny and scrambling, Triplett nonetheless thinks the election fiasco has been exaggerated to the public. “The story has been our errors, but when you start seeing what has happened around the country, it’s like, wow, people wish they were where we are,” he says. Sims himself feels the mistakes are overblown. Ballotwise, he said at a news conference, “We had an accuracy rate that any bank would envy,” claiming the ballot count was 99.8 percent accurate. Not surprisingly, state GOP Chair Chris Vance pounced, noting that if a bank had assets of $50 million and a 99.8 accuracy rate, $100,000 would be missing and someone would likely go to jail.

Logan’s office is still trying to explain a number of other discrepancies, such as 200 uncounted absentee ballots set aside because they needed “more research.” Officials also can’t say exactly how many provisional ballots—issued to voters whose registrations were in question—were wrongly fed into voting machines rather than set aside to be later verified and counted. It could be 348 or as many as 660. “We do not have a definitive answer,” says Logan. At least 40 provisional voters were found to have been credited with voting twice, and some may have, in fact, voted twice. Another issue is unexplained votes. In one polling place, for example, there appear to have been at least 200 more ballots cast than there were voters signed in. According to a survey of county data by the Republican Party, there were 9,596 more ballots than there were voters in 2,329 county precincts. Logan, who disputes the GOP finding, says there are always disparities in matching the counts. Some voters, in fact, don’t have to be registered to vote in the county, he notes, and can just request a special ballot. Others, such as some domestic-violence victims whose identities and addresses are kept secret by law, can vote without leaving a trail. In his report, Logan says that “Human error, . . . during various interaction points at poll sites or in crediting absentees, is most likely what resulted in a [vote-to-voter] variance that is within two-tenths of a percent.”

Triplett, Sims’ chief, tries to explain it further: “You have to remember that this election is one night and [followed by] the absentee counting. It’s a moment in time. It’s like a picture is taken: You have 4,000 people working on that election, with only 40 full-time county elections employees. So you have 3,960 people who are mostly seniors, paid volunteers. They’re working a 12-hour day. That’s the snapshot of what happens in a day, which has now been subjected to millions of dollars in legal scrutiny and people asking, ‘How could this happen?’ That’s why, when people say heads have to roll, are you saying the retired grandma who didn’t understand provisional ballots and let the person go ahead and feed it into the machines, that grandma’s head should roll?”

It was not necessarily granny, however, who allowed at least 99 state felons to illegally cast county votes in the Nov. 2 election. All have now had their voter registrations revoked. However, their votes stand. (Statewide, the Republican Party claims, 913 Washington felons voted improperly.) In the wake of the scandal, King County Superior Court is now providing sometimes weekly conviction updates to the elections office, recently sending along the names of 70 freshly minted felons, of whom only five were registered voters. Logan’s office says that since January, the county has received 1,822 notifications of convicted local/state felons. Of that, the voter registrations of 499 were canceled (1,323 of the lawbreakers were not registered voters).

But while that problem might be getting fixed, another has developed. Felons with federal records are even more likely than state felons to be on voter registration roles. Logan told me his office gets only “sporadic” notification of federal court convictions. “Are there hundreds of federal felons they’ve not notified us about? Who knows?” says Logan’s spokesperson, Bobbie Egan. Logan is planning to ask the federal court to furnish updates as regularly as possible.

As you might recall, Rossi initially won the 2004 gubernatorial election by 261 votes, a margin requiring a recount. That’s when the fun began. A combination machine and hand recount gave him a narrower, 42-vote win but set off an automatic full and final hand recount. Gregoire wound up ahead by 10 votes. The state Supreme Court then ordered 735 previously rejected King County absentee ballots be counted. When 556 ballots were eventually verified for inclusion in the manual recount, Gregoire wound up with a 129-vote margin statewide. She quickly took office and changed the locks, hanging out the No Realtors sign.

All the reviews of the process in King County and the statewide lawsuit by Republicans could run the year. Chelan County Superior Court Judge John Bridges will hear arguments at a hearing next Monday, May 2, in Wenatchee, where the Republicans filed their suit, leading up to perhaps a two-week trial slated to begin May 23, with the outcome almost certain to be appealed to the state Supreme Court. The GOP wants the courts to effectively evict Gregoire from the Olympia manse and make her stand for re-election in her first year. State GOP Chair Vance says a new vote is warranted on the basis of so many King County ballots lost and found, uncounted and miscounted, and illegally cast by lawbreakers and the dearly departed. Using what’s called a “proportional deduction” method (or “guesswork,” in the Democrats’ lexicon), the party argues that a certain number of the provably illegal votes cast for governor in 2004 should be deducted from each candidate according to the proportion of votes each one carried in the given precincts. The result, theoretically, would demonstrate that it’s impossible to prove a clear winner was picked by 2.8 million voters. The GOP has not outright alleged intentional election fraud. But it is convinced that error and incompetence were so prevalent, especially in King County, that a runoff is the only fair resolution.

Thing is, the 2004 King County election was run much like elections past. In fact, up until Nov. 2, the 2004 election system was in better shape than in 2002, if you accept Ron Sims’ analysis. After a series of human errors and technical glitches caused mailing delays and left ballots uncounted in 2002, Sims formed a Citizens’ Election Oversight Committee in 2003 and brought Logan aboard. In its impressively detailed, 158-page April 2004 report, the committee reviewed a few special elections and found they were “now much more professionally and reliably conducted” and that “absentee ballot processing and tabulating has also improved dramatically.” It saw promise of perfection in Logan, whose fixes and advances included a new electronic election management and voter registration system, bilingual ballots, and staff reorganization. The department was already better at managing its absentee mailing system and voter rolls (4,305 dead voters were purged in 2004, along with 605 felons). The potential for widespread failure had been reduced.

Unfortunately, while all that might have improved ballot handling and counting, systemic weakness remained either unfixed or undiscovered. The convergence of extraordinary events in November 2004, Logan now concedes, “exposed the gaps in our systems and limits on our capacity.” Besides the closest gubernatorial vote in state history and the rise in accounting fallibility as the historic recounts progressed, King County endured a record voter turnout and was swamped by a bureaucratic nightmare: a record number of county absentee (646,000) and provisional (31,000) ballots issued, all of which had to be counted manually. In the election run-up, more than 138,000 new county voter registrations had to be handled, 40 percent more than in the 2000 election.

At the polls, 540 optical-scanning county computers, which tally hand-marked ballots, got their biggest workout ever, not only by the volume of ballots processed but by thousands of voters who flunked the bubble test. Most people managed to simply fill in the selection circle next to their preferred candidate, as required. But at least 1,600 original King County poll and absentee ballots had to be scrutinized, to determine “voter intent,” by two review boards because markings on them were unclear. In the assorted counts, almost 5,000 ballots that were physically distorted or damaged had to be duplicated for recounting, while 55,000 other ballots had to be enhanced so a machine could read them. Rather than coloring inside the bubble lines, quirky voters wrote in the names of candidates already on the ballot, circled the name of their candidate, circled the candidate’s party, checked the circles, circled the circles, and even stabbed the circles with pens or knives—in the manner of the old punch-card voting system. Some voters crossed out opponents, leaving the likely candidate uncircled. Others wrote in personal comments, political slogans, and assigned votes to Mickey Mouse and other unannounced candidates—perhaps, understandably, because they were sometimes faced with choosing the lesser liar on the ballot. “We had some very creative voters,” Logan says dryly. A number of others asked that their ballots be set aside and counted by hand because they worried the county’s AccuVote scanning computers might electronically alter their choices.

To a degree, all those problems show up at every election. But with more voters lured out by a divisive presidential-year election that also produced the hairbreadth gubernatorial vote, foul-ups happened on steroids in 2004. The recounts compounded the error factor. The final tally, handing Gregoire her meager victory, was done all by hand, the least reliable method of tabulating large numbers of votes. The scrutiny brought on by the recounts exposed other failures, including lack of training for part-time (mostly one- or two-day) poll workers. In a vote this close, all it takes for a major snafu is one poll worker or county elections employee overlooking a cache of votes—which, in fact, happened more than a few times. Even without recounts, the record vote likely would have caused systemic glitches. But, like in the past, they would have been at least stage-managed and dealt with by more promised fixes. And after all, democratic ideals to the contrary, no large-scale modern voting system is precise. That was made clear in 2000 when, according to a Scripps Howard Newspapers study, at least 1.6 million presidential votes cast in 38 states were not counted due to human and mechanical glitches. The worst offender, Cook County of Illinois, failed to count 122,914 presidential votes.

Though former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican, memorialized King County as having “the worst elections administration of any county in the United States of America,” that might be as off the mark as state Democratic Chair Paul Berendt’s declaration that the 2004 vote was “the most accurate election in state history.” (Actually, if the Democrats and Republicans want to lay blame, they might start with their offerings of gubernatorial candidates—two pols so uninspiring that they almost exactly divided shoulder-shrugging voters and opened this Pandora’s ballot box in the first place.) For comparison, it wasn’t King County in 2004 but a precinct in Ohio that gave George Bush 4,258 votes when only 638 people voted. Then there was the voting machine in Florida last year that counted backward, and the North Carolina computer that canceled votes. As an audience member at the recent Shoreline town hall meeting pointed out, “If we’d had this [current county] level of scrutiny down in Florida in 2000, maybe about 1,500 of our soldiers might be alive today.” And at a town hall two nights later at First Baptist Church in Seattle, an audience member, calling forth Gorton’s words, observed: “As bad as it was here, tens of thousands of people weren’t denied the right to vote just because they were black, as happened in [Republican-controlled] Florida four years ago.”

Says Sims point man Triplett: “We continue to be mystified why it doesn’t matter that extra ballots were found in Pierce County or Snohomish County or that the same things happened in Spokane County.” Of course, King County is the state’s largest, with 1.2 million registered voters, and it issues more absentee ballots than almost any county in the nation. It’s also a jurisdiction that Gregoire carried by 150,000 votes. Still, Pierce County had an ample share of dead and felonious voters, and Snohomish County, where voting is done by touch screen, had at least 28 computers with “calibration issues” that included screens popping up with ballots already filled out. Snohomish County’s machines also lacked a paper trail, providing no meaningful mechanism for a recount or comparison for errors. That sent a message to anyone who thinks touch screens are the wave of the future: Had all state voters cast ballots last year on touch screens like those in Snohomish County, Rossi would be governor today.

Still, the mishandled vote is the good news as well as the bad of 2004. While revealing human and computer shortcomings, the scandal exposed the areas most needing repair. “That’s the biggest positive” to a tarnished democratic tradition, says Logan, in search of an upside. His 2004 review says previous fixes to the system weren’t fully instituted because of “deadlines, court challenges, insufficient training, and sheer volume. As a result, mistakes were made.” Sims has called for such reforms as having the primary earlier, making all-mail elections an option, centralizing county election operations now spread over three facilities, and increasing funding. “Now that we know what happened,” Logan’s report says, “our job is to make it better.” Already in the works is a plan to put stickers on provisional ballots so they can’t be accidentally fed into scanning machines and counted without verification. The primary election might eventually be held in August instead of September (though not this year) to allow more time to send, receive, and verify absentee ballots. A long-time-coming statewide computer voter system is supposed to be online next year to aid cross-checking of eligibility from county to county, including matching voter records with the state Department of Corrections database. Officials are still working to improve voter registration forms, which ask registrants to declare age, residence, citizenship, and nonfelony status, though none of the claims are verified. “We’ve been required to accept it [the form] on its face,” says Logan.

As he goes about his work in the spotlight, in a job that used to get media attention perhaps a few days in September and November, Logan says he spends little time dwelling on his own fate, or that of Sims. At some of the town hall meetings, audience members have urged both to step down. Sims won’t, and Logan says, “I’ve been so busy, I haven’t even had time to think of it.” Six Republican County Council members recently wrote Sims asking him “to explain your confidence in Elections Director Dean Logan’s ability to reform the Elections office and rebuild the public’s trust in the integrity of the elections process.” Logan appears to have remained in one piece under the assault, and focuses on the bumpy road ahead. Being nonpartisan is the thing he’s “most proud of,” he says. A February special election, in which a more manageable 13,730 ballots were cast on school and public safety measures in Auburn and Enumclaw, appears to have gone swimmingly; all but 16 absentee ballots were verified and counted, officials said. But more tests loom in upcoming special elections and then the September primary and, finally, the general election. At the same time, Logan says, his office is bogged down copying lawsuit documents and slowly fulfilling public-records requests—up to 50 a day—most from critics seeking to prove him wrong.

“From a political standpoint,” he says, “they tasted something they wanted really bad, and it’s hard to let that go.” He tries not to acknowledge detractors, he says. “It’s not about me. I don’t want to really engage in a debate. I love this work, I believe in this work, and I knew this was going to be challenging—and it has certainly exceeded those expectations,” he says with a painful laugh. “If I thought it would benefit the process and organization to walk away, I would have done that a long time ago. I’m here,” he says, “for the long haul.”