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Originally published Monday, August 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Credibility on the line in Sept. vote

At the end of the night on Primary Election Day this year, King County poll workers will lift the lid of each ballot receptacle. They'll poke their heads...

Seattle Times staff reporter

At the end of the night on Primary Election Day this year, King County poll workers will lift the lid of each ballot receptacle. They'll poke their heads inside and find a tiny flashlight hanging from a chain. When they shine the light into the container, they will see either a "secret number" or a pile of ballots someone forgot to remove.

By recording the number, the poll workers will ensure that no ballots are left behind, as some were last year.

All that should help restore confidence — for voters and the county officials whose careers depend on an incident-free election.

An off-year primary election wouldn't normally draw this much attention. But as election workers prepare to mail out more than 587,000 absentee ballots Wednesday for the Sept. 20 primary, there is intense pressure to make up for past mistakes.

From poll-worker training — where the first PowerPoint slide says "2004: Lessons Learned" — to the campaign for county executive — where Republican candidate David Irons points to the 2004 election as evidence of incumbent Democrat Ron Sims' shortcomings — a lot is riding on the primary.

Elections Director Dean Logan's job is on the line, and so is the office's credibility. Cheryl Scott, the chairwoman of King County's Task Force on Elections, says one smooth primary could "shift us from cynicism to healthy skepticism."

"That would be a huge win for all of us," she said.

Scrutiny of the county Elections Section started in 2002 and 2003, when county workers mailed hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots late. Then last year's close governor's race revealed another slew of errors, including lost, uncounted and miscounted ballots; a fabricated report; and the fact that hundreds of convicted felons were allowed to vote in violation of state law.

The Legislature this year passed reforms that forced some improvements on the county office. Voters will have to show identification to vote at the polls. Provisional ballots, some of which were mishandled last year, will be marked so they can't be read by vote-counting machines.

But Logan's office has implemented a long list of technical improvements of its own in an effort to make sure the staff is better trained, security is tighter and ballots are more closely looked after.

"I think everybody's just digging in and trying to keep their eye on the prize of running just a good primary election," Logan said.

The elections office itself seems singly focused on the technical changes in place for next month's primary, but Scott said the office is going to have to implement a culture change and long-term vision.

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"That's why we called for a turnaround team," a group of outside consultants being brought in to improve the way the office is run, she said.

County Executive Sims said the office took a methodical approach and tackled technical changes first because those matter more to voters.

"To the voter, it is the procedural things that are really important," he said. "I'm also optimistic that we're going to implement the cultural changes, too."

It's still not clear how much authority will be given to the turnaround team that the task force recommended. Sims' office says the team will observe the September primary and have a more direct role later on. Logan said Friday he would resign if the task force is put in charge of his office or called on to direct elections.

"If there's not a role for me to play here, and there's not confidence in me playing a role in the process, then it's not good for me or the county to be here," he said, adding: "At this point, we're far from that point."

Sims' chief of staff, Kurt Triplett, said the team will report directly to Sims and make recommendations to him about elections operations. The team can disagree with Logan but won't have direct control over the office.

Triplett acknowledged that Logan's future is uncertain but said both he and the executive "expect and want" Logan to stay.

The county is still waiting for the results of an audit by The Election Center, a Houston-based consultant.

Last month, the Metropolitan King County Council rejected a proposal to buy property in Seattle's Rainier Valley to consolidate election operations at one elections center, so the elections staff is still spread out among several offices.

The county has had trouble hiring for some open positions in the office, in part, Logan said, because of the public scrutiny involved in the jobs. In the meantime, county employees from other departments are on loan until after the fall elections.

The office is still short about 500 Election Day poll workers.

"Not only does every vote count, but every mistake is important," said Betty Sullivan, a poll worker and retired employee of King County Elections. "The potential for having what you do cause a lot of problems certainly should have come home to the poll workers."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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