Sorting through recount muddle
On the day that Secretary of State Sam Reed is to certify Democrat Christine Gregoire as governor-elect and she's expected to declare victory, Republican candidate Dino Rossi is calling for a new election. It's no wonder voters remain confused eight weeks after the election.
Seattle Times staff reporters
On the day Secretary of State Sam Reed is to certify Democrat Christine Gregoire as governor-elect, Republican candidate Dino Rossi is pressing for a new election, and the threat of more lawsuits looms in what is thought to be the closest governor's race in U.S. history.
It's no wonder voters remain confused eight weeks after the election.
Sunday, Seattle Times Executive Editor Mike Fancher asked readers to send in questions. Many took him up on the invitation. And while he asked people to forgo diatribes, frustration showed clearly in many of the questions.Times reporters have answered many of those questions.
Q. Why should I believe that this final hand recount is accurate?
A. There is no realistic way to check the accuracy of the hand recount, other than to count again. Under Washington state law, the hand recount is reserved for only the closest elections. John Pearson, the state's deputy elections director, said the most accurate recount is when a machine recount is combined with a manual one, such as in this election, so the counts can be compared and rectified.
It is true that in most counties in this election, the hand recount included votes that had been missed in the earlier machine recount.
|Governor||Votes||% of vote|
|Christine Gregoire (D)||1,373,361||48.8730%|
|Dino Rossi (R)||1,373,232||48.8685%|
|Ruth Bennett (L)||63,465||2.2585%|
Q. How are we to be sure that any of these "found" votes are valid?
A. Although ballots were added during each recount, each vote had to meet the same standards for validity as anything counted in the original tally. Every one was checked to make sure the voter was properly registered, and in the case of absentee and provisional ballots, attempts were made to compare signatures on ballot envelopes with those in voter-registration files. The county canvassing boards also reviewed many of the ballots that were added.
Q. How could so many ballots be misplaced? And is this normal?
A. That's a great question and almost impossible to answer. We only learned about all the errors this time because the race for governor was so close. In other elections, who would know if 735 ballots were improperly disqualified? It's only through the two recounts that human and machine errors were discovered this year.
Q. Since they "found" these ballots in King county, why aren't they looking for other "misplaced" ballots in the many other counties in Washington?
A. That's exactly what Republicans tried to do. But county elections officials have denied Republican requests to reconsider ballots that had been rejected during the earlier counts, because those county totals have already been certified.
Q. But weren't some votes already added during the recounts in counties other than King?
A. Yes, some additional votes were found in other counties during the two recounts, and before the Republicans called for a more concentrated effort to look for uncounted ballots statewide.
Nick Handy, state elections director, provided the following numbers:
Snohomish County -- 224 ballots, located in a mail tray buried in the middle of a large stack of empty mail trays.
Kittitas County -- 34 ballots, located during the first (machine) recount after they were mistakenly set aside.
Whatcom County -- seven ballots, which were provisional ballots inadvertently placed in a stack of empty envelopes.
Chelan County -- one ballot, which had been incorrectly disqualified as a duplicate.
Pierce County -- one ballot, which had been lodged in the bottom of a voting machine during the manual recount.
Q. How can I find out whether my vote was counted in King County?
A. Call 296-VOTE (8683) with your name and address.
Q. Has anyone ever tried to do a (believable) study to try to quantify the margin of error in any of the counting processes that we use?
A. This morning two readers point out that a voting project by the California and Massachusetts institutes of technology did a study on this issue in 2001, focusing solely on presidential elections.
"The central finding of this investigation is that manually counted paper ballots have the lowest average incidence of spoiled, uncounted, and unmarked ballots, followed closely by lever machines and optically scanned ballots," the study said. On average, punch cards and electronic voting machines had significantly higher average rates of problems.
The study can be found at: http://www.vote.caltech.edu/Reports/vtp_WP1.pdf
Seattle Times staff reporter Andrew Garber wrote a story on this subject on Dec. 5, that included this passage:
"There is a margin of error in connection with any measurement system, whether we're counting fish in a lake or counting votes for a governor," said Kirk Wolter, a statistics professor at the University of Chicago who did research on what happened in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.
In an election, Wolter said, "there are millions of human interactions, and we're all human and we all make random mistakes."
Q. If there was a hand count only in King County and it reproduced a different result, shouldn't there be a hand count in all of the other counties?
A. The hand recount included all 39 counties.
Q. Why does the taxpayer, meaning me, have to pay for the hand recount?
A. That's what the law says. Democrats had to pay more than $700,000 as a deposit to order the hand recount and would have had to pay the full costs if the count had found Rossi the winner. But since the results put Gregoire on top, the law says the state has to return the party's check (it was never cashed). The theory here is that a candidate or political party should not have to pay for a recount if it is found that errors had erroneously shown them the loser in the earlier count.
Pearson, the deputy elections director, said it will be up to the counties to pay for the recount but, "Hopefully there will be an effort on the part of the legislature to reimburse the counties."
Q.Do the current rules allow for us to reject the Governor's election results completely and do the election again?
A. Yes. State law has a provision to contest the election, which gives a judge the authority to "set aside'' an election if there is fraud or errors so great they put the true outcome of the election in doubt.
Q.Is a federal lawsuit possible?
A. Yes, it is possible. The U.S. Supreme Court decision that stopped the 2000 presidential recount in Florida is seen by attorneys on both sides as giving ammunition to the argument that disparity in how ballots were handled county-by-county creates a violation of the equal protection guarantees in the U.S. Constitution.
Q.Why not let both candidates "win" by splitting the term between them?
A. Because elections require a single winner. The law requires for a tie to be broken by the Legislature with no provisions for power-sharing or the like.
Q.Why does the media characterize Rossi's alternatives as "reversing the outcome" rather than "restoring the outcome"?
A. A Republican challenge now would "reverse" the outcome because this outcome is the end of the process, the completion of the final recount. Rossi led in the first two counts, but state law clearly allows for a third -- and final -- count that determines "the outcome."
Q.I am interested in knowing if the state plane Rossi has been flying around in the past few weeks as "Gov elect" will now be paid for by his campaign committee?
A. There certainly are no plans for that. Rossi was governor-elect. Gov. Gary Locke decided to give Rossi and Gregoire office space and transition funds so they could both begin to prepare for their potential administrations. Rossi has used some of his funds, along with a state plane, to travel the state and meet with people.
Q. How come King County was able to wait out the results in the rest of the state before turning in their results? It certainly looks like they figured out just what was needed and then found the votes.
A. King County did not "wait out the results." It is the largest county by far and the county kept to the schedule it announced prior to the beginning of the hand count.
Q. Why is it that the Democrats wouldn't concede the election after Rossi won? Why is it that the Democrats wanted to keep recounting the votes?
A. Gregoire would not concede because she believed that an accurate vote count had not yet been completed. The law very clearly mandated the first recount, and just as clearly allowed Democrats the right to request the second recount. Rossi is yet to concede while he and the party decide whether to challenge the results.
Q. When I worked at the polls many years ago there was no thing called a provisional ballot. If you lived in Seattle but hadn't changed your voting address from Whidbey Island then you went to Whidbey Island to vote. Why should voters be allowed to "drop in" anyplace to vote?
A. Provisional ballots are meant to be a reform. They have been allowed for more than three decades in Washington state and were mandated in all federal elections by the Help America Vote Act.
Washington state has one of the most liberal provisional ballot laws in the country. Any voter from any state can vote in a Washington polling place and the ballot will be sent to their home state so the vote in the presidential election can be counted.
Within the state, a voter from Spokane could vote in Seattle on election day. That ballot would be sent to Spokane and if the voter is properly registered there, the votes for president and in all statewide contests could be counted.
Q. How was the "hand recount" handled in Snohomish and Yakima counties, the two counties that have electronic voting? It is my understanding that machines in both counties do not have a paper trail, so I do not understand how a "hand" recount was possible there.
A. While it was possible to create a paper image of ballots in these counties, an agreement was made among the Secretary of State, the political parties and the two counties not to recount these poll ballots. Absentee ballots, the bulk of those voted in the two counties, were retallied.
Q. How is it possible that votes are spoiled?
A. It could be something as simple as someone spilled coffee on their absentee ballot before putting it in the mail. Paper ballots are subject to rips and stains any time they are handled.
Q. Exactly how many ballots were "enhanced" and duplicated?
A. King County elections officials said 55,177 ballots were enhanced and 4,902 were duplicated. There were no enhancements or duplications for the hand recount because ballots were altered only so they could be read by counting machines. Enhancements included putting white-out tape over superfluous markings on the ballot. Some ballots were duplicated if they were torn or otherwise damaged so they couldn't be read by the machine.
Q. Why was white-out applied? Was that legal?
A. It was removable white-out tape that was applied to ballots so machines could read them. If, for example, a voter circled a candidate's name, rather than filling in the oval next to it, the county taped over the circle and filled in the oval so the ballot could be read. Several times during the hand recount the county canvassing board asked for the tape to be removed to examine voter intent. State law says ballots can be enhanced to be read by a machine as long as a voter's original intent can be determined. How that's done is up to each county.
Q. Why the indifference on the part of those who can actually do something about this election: Congress and Senate?
A. After the 2000 election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, known as HAVA, which was designed to address problems that plagued the Florida count. After questions in the Ohio presidential vote this year, there is likely to be renewed interest in Congress for further reforms.
In general, Congress leaves administration of state elections to state officials and legislatures.
Within Washington state, some lawmakers have already talked about the need to change state law to mandate more uniformity in how ballots are handled across the state.
Q. Do state Republicans have the guts to fight for a win in the governor's race, or have the years of being dominated by West side democrats taken a toll?
A. This was the best year in a long time for the Republicans' candidate for governor. Rossi came closer than any GOP candidate since John Spellman won in 1980. Rossi ran what most people say was a great campaign. Locke called it brilliant.
Q. Why is it that emotions run higher when the balloting is closer as in the governor's race or the Presidential election? Do those who lose by a larger margin just accept the fact without claiming the election was "stolen"?
A. That's probably right. In elections that aren't close it becomes a lot harder to argue that the election has been "stolen." As an example, four years ago Locke beat Republican John Carlson by 461,913 votes. Arguing about even 735 ballots in King County would not have affected the outcome.
It's also true that the 2000 presidential election left some partisans bitter. Many Democrats feel the U.S. Supreme Court was unfair in its decision that ended the Florida recount. Some Democrats are still angry at their own party for not fighting harder.
Q. What can I do to help assure that Washington state's election doesn't become fodder for comedians like Florida's election did in 2000? In other words, who do I contact?
A. Jay Leno and David Letterman maybe?
Or, if you want to let public officials know what you think, here is some contact information:
Secretary of State Sam Reed, the state's chief election official, can be reached at 360-902-4151 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find your state legislator, go to http://www.leg.wa.gov/DistrictFinder/Default.aspx You can also call the toll-free legislative hotline at 800-562-6000.
David Postman: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
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