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Originally published Tuesday, May 24, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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E-mails cite absentee mess

King County election officials were worried in the weeks before November's election that a new computer system for tracking absentee ballots...

Seattle Times chief political reporter

King County election officials were worried in the weeks before November's election that a new computer system for tracking absentee ballots wasn't reliable.

As absentee ballots poured into the elections office, workers couldn't tell how many had been sent to voters, mailed back to the county, validated or put in batches to be counted, according to internal e-mails among county workers.

One of those e-mails played a role yesterday in the lawsuit over Gov. Christine Gregoire's election.

In opening statements in the trial in Wenatchee, Republican attorneys used it to argue that ballot-tracking problems mean no one can say for sure who really won the election. And they accused election workers of committing fraud by preparing a false report that made it look as if the ballots reconciled properly after the election.

King County's inability to track the ballots already is part of an investigation into the elections division. Some of the people in charge of absentee ballots and the computer system have been suspended pending the outcome of that inquiry.

E-mails obtained by The Seattle Times through a records request and collected by attorneys in the lawsuit show mounting frustration last fall as workers realized the county's new $1 million computer system couldn't provide a precise tally of ballots when multiple users were on the system.

One manager complained to her boss.

"WE DON'T HAVE A FREAKING COUNT!!!!!!!!!! OH MY GOD," wrote Nicole Way, absentee-ballot supervisor.

Way, one of the workers now on suspension, has not returned phone calls for comment. In a deposition taken earlier this month, she said she and her boss, Garth Fell, used a false number on a mail-ballot report because the computer system, called DIMS, wouldn't give an accurate count of ballots returned. Fell, in his deposition, disagreed with Way, saying DIMS could and did keep track of ballots issued.

Before the election, Way seemed to be the lead critic of the system, produced by Texas-based Diebold Election Systems.

But there was equal worry among technical-support workers, who questioned whether employees were to blame.

"Do they really know what they are doing???" wrote computer technician Travis Elsom.

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In her e-mails, Way defended the workers, saying they were doing exactly as told and that the computer system was malfunctioning.

She wrote to Fell, assistant elections superintendent, spelling out her frustration.

"I am sorry to say this, but DIMS is very lacking any real tracking of anything," she wrote Oct. 28, in the e-mail quoted in court yesterday.

"We can not say for certain how many ballots have been issued/mailed, how many reissued, who has been issued what, how many ballots are actually returned/batched ... how many ballots are actually verified and accepted vs. challenged by us," she wrote.

Republican attorney Dale Foreman, reading aloud from the e-mail in court, quoted Way as saying the staff had sent out hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots without keeping track of them. He then linked that to the misleading mail-ballot report.

"This is a case of fraud by upper management of King County elections," Foreman said. "This is not a small deal, your honor."

Democratic attorney Kevin Hamilton countered: "At the end of the day they have little more than the fact that King County was wrestling with new software for this voter-registration database.

"The transition wasn't smooth. There were frustrations voiced by election workers. But that does not establish illegal voting by a long shot."

Installing a new computer system was a key recommendation following the 2002 election. At that time, old mainframe computers and a ballot-counting computer were not functioning together, leading to delays in preparing and mailing absentee ballots.

The Data Information Management System (DIMS) was supposed to be the answer. It was designed to automate the voter-registration system to track absentee-ballot requests from voters and update records of which voters voted in each election.

And it was up and running in a big hurry.

"We implemented the system in six months that would normally take a good year and a half," Harry Sanders, the DIMS project manager, said in an interview. "That was our mandate."

The system was operating by June. But the staff didn't fully understand how to use it.

Problems popped up as absentee ballots began arriving. The computer showed some ballots had arrived at the elections office, when in fact they hadn't.

"I don't want to send someone a ballot that has returned one," DIMS administrator Scott Turnbull wrote Oct. 23.

Turnbull discovered that the computer system couldn't produce accurate totals of ballots issued and returned while staff were inputting data.

A Pierce County election official told him that all DIMS users have the same problem but that the system "will always be 'in the ballpark.' "

Snohomish County Auditor Bob Terwilliger, in an interview Friday, said his staff "had many of those problems" when DIMS was installed there in 1995, but the problems were resolved as staffers learned to use the system.

King County Elections Director Dean Logan has said that his employees knew they were under a tight deadline for installing the new computer system and training workers to use it.

But without the update, he said at one town-hall session, the old computer "literally would have ground the whole process to a halt. We would not have been able to deal with the volume of ballots."

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or dpostman@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times reporters Keith Ervin, Susan Kelleher and Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.

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