New look at 573 ballots may close Gregoire gap
A divided King County Canvassing Board yesterday took the first step toward counting 573 previously rejected ballots that are expected to boost Democratic gubernatorial candidate...
Seattle Times staff reporters
A divided King County Canvassing Board yesterday took the first step toward counting 573 previously rejected ballots that are expected to boost Democratic gubernatorial candidate Christine Gregoire's vote total.
The 2-1 vote, with Democrats in the majority, directs election workers to reconsider absentee ballots that county officials say were erroneously disqualified because the county failed to enter those voters' signatures into the election computer system for comparison with signatures on ballot envelopes. GOP officials last night said they might challenge the decision in court.
King County could play the deciding role in a manual recount of an election in which Republican Dino Rossi initially beat Gregoire by 261 votes but whose lead was shaved to a mere 42 votes in a machine recount of nearly 3 million votes cast.
The race could be drawing closer, leading the political parties into fiercer fights over small numbers of ballots.
As of last night, after three more counties completed tallies, Rossi had gained 79 votes more than Gregoire in the manual recount, which would effectively give him a lead of 121 votes.
If all of the 573 contested King County ballots are counted, they could close the gap for Gregoire. Those ballots are from 480 precincts, and if they follow the same pattern as absentee ballots from those precincts, they would boost Gregoire by about 140 votes.
It is uncertain how many of the disputed ballots will be counted. Election officials so far have found signatures for 245 of the voters. The canvassing board yesterday asked an attorney for an opinion on whether it is too late to accept new signatures from other voters.
State Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance, claiming the canvassing board's action was at odds with a state Supreme Court decision Tuesday, said his party may seek a court order to block the canvassing board's decision.
Vance called the decision "a 2-to-1 party-line vote in defiance of the King County prosecutor's office."
State Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt disagreed, saying Republicans haven't objected to counting overlooked ballots in counties that favored Rossi. "But now that the count isn't going their way, the GOP and Dino Rossi are screaming fraud in King County. They are doing everything they can to keep these ballots from being counted."
The vote followed party lines. Dan Satterberg who represents Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng, a Republican, on the canvassing board said the board should study the facts more closely before acting. He cast the only vote against immediately reconsidering the ballots.
The board's other two members, Elections Director Dean Logan and County Councilman Dwight Pelz, both Democrats, voted to count any of those ballots if voters' signatures can be matched to signatures on file.
Satterberg said he didn't necessarily oppose counting the 573 ballots but said he hadn't reached the "comfort level" to move forward until the signatures were verified. "This is obviously an issue of great importance," he said. "I don't see what the rush is. People need time to digest this."
But Logan said the ballots should be counted because the county, not the voters, was in error. "We're stringing along 573 voters wondering why their vote wasn't counted the first time and will it be counted," he said, taking full responsibility for the error. "These are validly registered voters who did nothing wrong," he said.
Berendt, who advocated counting all 573 rejected votes, said he was "puzzled" that the canvassing board didn't move more aggressively to count all of them.
The canvassing board also:
Delayed a decision on whether to count 22 absentee and provisional ballots that were found in the bottom of election-equipment bins at polling places in the weeks after the Nov. 2 election.
Decided the manual recount of a precinct's results should be redone if they differ by as little as one vote from the earlier machine recount.
Began a one-by-one review of 245 problem ballots referred to the board by manual-counting teams.
Elections Superintendent Bill Huennekens said 101 of the 573 voters were sent letters in August asking for updated signatures and none responded.
Satterberg wondered whether the voters who failed to respond to the letter should bear some of the blame. But Pelz disagreed. "Clearly we made a mistake," he said.
Katherine Taylor-Hurley of West Seattle said she's voted absentee for the past seven years and was astounded to see her name on the list. She said she had received a letter saying her signature was not on record with King County Elections, so she supplied it yet still her vote wasn't counted.
The six Republican members of the King County Council yesterday asked the canvassing board to delay its decision on the 573 absentee votes and 22 other contested votes until Logan appears before the County Council to answer questions.
"We need to be able to convene this meeting in order to be able to ask Dean Logan: 'Are we dealing with incompetence or corruption? Why are we finding ballots we didn't have before?' " said Councilman Steve Hammond, R-Enumclaw. "Whose heads roll? Who gets fired as a result of this?" Hammond said.
County Council Chairman Larry Phillips, D-Seattle, said he will not call a special council meeting as requested by Republicans but will invite Logan to a meeting to discuss how the election process can be improved.
Election officials discovered the mistaken rejection of 573 absentee ballots after Phillips found his name Sunday on a list of voters whose ballots had been disqualified.
"The issue is very simple to me as a citizen," Phillips said. "I voted, I want my vote to count. No bunch of elected Republican officials or party hacks are going to keep me from having my vote count."
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org Seattle Times reporter Ralph Thomas contributed to this story.