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Originally published Tuesday, March 15, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Tally of mishandled ballots grows

King County election workers counted as many as 660 provisional ballots in the governor's election before the eligibility of those voters...

Seattle Times staff reporter

King County election workers counted as many as 660 provisional ballots in the governor's election before the eligibility of those voters was checked, Elections Director Dean Logan said yesterday.

Logan promised better control over provisional votes in future elections and said new safeguards tested in a small local-levy election Feb. 8 worked without a hitch.

"It's an area where we have to do better and we will do better," Logan said during his second appearance before the Metropolitan King County Council to answer questions about the Nov. 2 election.

Sitting beside County Executive Ron Sims' chief of staff, Kurt Triplett, Logan answered questions for 3 ½ hours.

The dialogue remained civil. In contrast with strong Republican rhetoric in the past about King County goofs in the election, the toughest talk yesterday came from Democrats.

Councilman Dow Constantine, D-Seattle, referring to comparisons made to Chicago's reputation for election fraud, said he had heard enough "loose talk about Cook County — hyperbole about taking names off tombstones and whatnot."

Julia Patterson, D-SeaTac, took "hot talk" radio stations to task, saying, "If there is anything that will undermine people's trust and confidence in our election system, it's those radio stations continuing to lie about fraud in King County."

The state Republican Party has filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the election of Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire, alleging illegal votes and errors by election workers. Gregoire defeated Republican Dino Rossi by 129 votes after three statewide counts; Rossi led after the first two.

Republicans on the County Council generally toned down their rhetoric during yesterday's session, even while questioning Logan about procedures for securing ballots, purging felons and dead people from the voter rolls, and accounting for ballots.

Several Republicans advocated stronger efforts to prevent felons from voting and to keep people from casting ballots in the names of dead voters.

The newest council member, former federal prosecutor Reagan Dunn, R-Bellevue, challenged Logan's claim that state law prohibits checking voters' criminal records as they register. Washington law prohibits felons from voting unless they have had their rights restored, which requires meeting all court-imposed obligations, including community service and the payment of restitution and fines.

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Logan suggested that Dunn read a King County prosecuting attorney's opinion on the issue. Logan said the county will be better able to identify illegal voters after a statewide voter-registration database goes online, by January 2006.

Logan also rejected a suggestion by Rep. Steve Hammond, R-Enumclaw, that the county canvassing board delay certifying future election results if the number of ballots counted doesn't match the number of ballots issued. County election officials have been unable to explain a 374-vote discrepancy between ballots issued at the polls and ballots counted in the governor's race.

Under state law, Logan said, it would be a misdemeanor for the board not to certify results within 15 days after the election.

On a separate issue, Logan said an internal investigation into the mishandling of 735 absentee ballots showed no evidence that any election worker tried to alter election results or deliberately disregarded orders. County Council Chairman Larry Phillips was among those whose ballots initially were rejected because their signatures initially weren't found in an electronic database; Phillips' ballot and 565 others were ultimately included in the third count of votes.

Logan, who was hired by Sims in 2003 to improve the county's trouble-plagued Records and Elections Division, said the mishandling of provisional ballots "probably troubled me the most" of all the mistakes in the Nov. 2 election.

Poll workers have confirmed 348 instances in which provisional ballots went through polling-place counting machines, but Logan said records show the total number of such incidents is close to 660.

Provisional ballots — used by voters whose names don't show up in poll books or who go to polling places away from home — are supposed to be put into sealed envelopes for later verification.

Logan said the mishandling of those ballots was especially disturbing because the Secretary of State's Office documented the same problem in 2003 and the county's Citizens' Elections Oversight Committee reported on it last year. Training of poll workers before the election emphasized the proper handling of provisional ballots, he said.

Logan said polling places were overwhelmed Nov. 2 by a "staggering number" of provisional ballots and that many polling places ran out of envelopes for those ballots by the middle of the day.

Election workers prevented the insertion of any provisional ballots into polling-place counting machines in the Feb. 8 Enumclaw city and Auburn School District levy elections by covering the "timing marks" on provisional ballots with stickers that prevented the ballots from going through machines, Logan said.

When the council discussed the mailing of absentee ballots to armed-forces members overseas, Councilman David Irons, R-Sammamish, said he didn't believe it was still an issue for County Council Republicans.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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