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Originally published Wednesday, December 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Polling places may be history in King County

King County could become the largest county in the nation to vote almost entirely by mail, perhaps as early as next year. With more than 70...

Seattle Times staff reporter

King County could become the largest county in the nation to vote almost entirely by mail, perhaps as early as next year.

With more than 70 percent of voters casting absentee ballots in last month's general election, County Executive Ron Sims said Tuesday the county needed to move in the same direction as voters.

By closing more than 500 polling places staffed by up to 4,000 temporary workers, Sims said, his proposal would save the county money and lead to more "accurate, transparent and accountable elections."

Republicans, still angry over problems with the 2004 governor's election, raised immediate objections. They said the county wasn't ready to take such a risky leap into the future with a kind of election they believe increases the likelihood of voter fraud.

Still, because of a Democratic majority on the County Council, Sims' plan is likely to gain approval, said Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, R-Woodinville. "The Republicans will be no and the Democrats will be yes," she said. "It's a party thing. It'll be a 5-4 vote."

As County Councilman Bob Ferguson, a fellow Democrat, put it, "Voters are voting with their stamps, not with their feet."

Among the council's five Democrats, Ferguson and Julia Patterson of SeaTac strongly support the concept and stood beside Sims as he made the announcement. Democrats Larry Gossett and Dow Constantine, both of Seattle, said they were receptive to the idea but are waiting for a detailed proposal.

What's next


After King County Elections Director Dean Logan submits a plan for going to all-mail elections, County Executive Ron Sims will ask the County Council for approval and money. Sims proposes to change election procedures in the 2006 or 2007 primary, but the cost isn't known.

Already, 33 of Washington's 39 counties have decided to scrap poll voting since the Legislature authorized all-mail voting earlier this year. However, the Snohomish County Council rejected vote-by-mail elections Monday.

Oregon led the way to all-mail voting in 2000, and remains the only state to have adopted the change statewide.

Sims' plan would open a few voting centers for people who insist on voting in person and for disabled people who need special voting equipment. Otherwise, those who look forward to voting at neighborhood polling places will be out of luck.

In registering their complaints, Republican critics said King County hasn't shown it can purge illegal voters from the rolls and adequately account for ballots.

State Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance acknowledged the growing popularity of voting by mail and said the Sims plan is likely to pass.

But Vance said all-mail voting is bad policy. "Voters would resent it if they had to vote the old-fashioned way, but it's the right way to do it. We all ought to stand in line at the elementary school, show our voter ID, look the person in the face, sign on the dotted line and vote in person."

Even some supporters of all-mail balloting were wondering if the county could eliminate neighborhood polling places by the 2006 or 2007 primary, as Sims proposes. Until the county's scattered election operations are consolidated into a new facility, they fear, serious mistakes could occur.

"The last thing we want to do is recommend something and have them implement it and have it fail," said Randy Matheson, vice chairman of the Citizens' Election Oversight Committee, whose members took a preliminary vote last week in favor of all-mail voting.

The oversight committee will issue a report to the County Council in February. The panel reconvened after the contested 2004 governor's election, in which ballots were misplaced, illegal votes were counted and accounting was sloppy.

Secretary of State Sam Reed broke with Republicans who opposed the vote-by-mail plan. "I think one of the problems they have in King County is that they are running two very different elections at the same time," Reed said.

At the same time, Reed said the county isn't ready for all-mail voting "because they don't have adequate space and perhaps not adequate resources."

Reed's office has encouraged King County for several years to consolidate election operations into a single building. Sims earlier this year proposed creating an elections center in Rainier Valley, but the County Council scuttled the $23 million deal, saying it wanted to look at more options.

Sims said it isn't necessary to consolidate operations before going to all-mail voting, but oversight-committee Chairman A.J. Culver wasn't so sure. "Unless you can get that in one location, it would be tough running an all-absentee election," Culver said.

Elections Assistant Director Sherril Huff Menees said it would be possible to run an all-mail election out of existing facilities but said consolidation would "add much greater peace of mind."

The transition to all-mail balloting would be eased by the purchase of software to verify voters' signatures and track ballots as they are processed. Sims has asked Elections Director Dean Logan to submit an implementation plan by the end of January.

Sims reiterated his support of Logan, who is taking time off because of a death in the family.

Times staff reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this report. Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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