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Originally published November 13, 2013 at 9:20 PM | Page modified November 14, 2013 at 11:33 AM

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Why the counting drags on long after King County voting is over

If it seems to be taking longer to decide some key races, election officials note that voters sent in their ballots later than usual. In King County, roughly 20 percent of ballots arrived after Election Day.


Seattle Times staff reporter

Updated vote totals

SeaTac Proposition 1

Yes: 50.17%

No: 49.83%

Seattle City Council

Kshama Sawant: 49.99%

Richard Conlin: 49.75%

Write-in: 0.26%

Bellevue City Council

Kevin Wallace: 50.28%

Steve Kasner: 49.54%

Write-in: 0.18%

Source: King County Elections

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If you’re frustrated about how long it is taking election officials to determine who will be your next city-council member, or whether your minimum-wage salary will go up to $15 per hour — you may have nobody to blame but yourself and your neighbors.

King County officials said Wednesday that roughly 20 percent of this year’s ballots arrived in the mail after Election Day — more than double last year’s rate.

Officials say the late surge, presumably due to some undecided, busy or procrastinating voters in this relatively low-key, off-year election, is a key reason so many votes remain uncounted and at least three major races still hang in the balance.

Seattle City Council challenger Kshama Sawant led incumbent Richard Conlin by 402 votes, while Bellevue City Councilmember Kevin Wallace clung to a 200-vote lead over Steve Kasner in updated totals Wednesday afternoon.

And in the city of SeaTac, a ballot measure to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour was ahead by just 19 votes.

King County Elections estimated it had about 44,000 ballots in its office still to count. That’s about 8 percent of the total ballots received.

Pierce County said it had just 0.3 percent left. Snohomish County reported 2.4 percent uncounted, while Spokane County was at 0.4 percent.

Dave Ammons, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said counties across Washington received a large number of late ballots this year because of confusing initiatives, few high-profile races and some late campaign efforts.

King County Elections spokeswoman Kim van Ekstrom speculated that the phenomenon may have especially affected King County, the state’s largest.

“We did a fantastic job of getting a lot of results out fast given the timing of when so many of those ballots came in,” said van Ekstrom, adding that vote counting is a “complicated process.”

The process starts when a ballot arrives and is sorted by where it came from, van Ekstrom said.

The signature on the outside of the envelope must be verified by hand. Washington does not use automatic electronic signature verification, as Oregon does.

This year, about 10,000 King County ballot envelopes had signatures that didn’t appear to match the voters’ file, van Ekstrom said.

The Sawant and Conlin campaigns, and maybe others, are working to help their supporters resolve any signature issues. More than 1,000 such issues were resolved in Wednesday’s batch, van Ekstrom said.

Once the signature is verified, the ballot is removed from the envelope, and a security envelope, and inspected.

As in past years, about 15 percent of this year’s ballots had some type of issue that slowed them down — a write-in vote, a stray pen mark, a change of mind, or writing in the wrong color ink, van Ekstrom said.

Many of those ballots must be manually duplicated by a team of two before being fed into machines for counting.

Most of the remaining 44,000 ballots have some sort of abnormality, van Ekstrom said.

King County Elections hired about 350 temporary staff for this year’s election, including more than 200 vote counters.

Unlike in other states, Washington election workers typically do not work significant overtime. Last year, King County Elections Director Sherril Huff said working late invites mistakes.

One other major difference between Washington and its vote-by-mail cousin Oregon: Our neighbor to the south requires that ballots be received by Election Day, not postmarked.

Ballots that arrived after Election Day may have caused King County’s vote-counting process to take longer than the typical day-and-a-half for a normal ballot, officials say.

About 168,000 came on Election Day and 107,000 came the day after, according to van Ekstrom.

Last year, a presidential-election year when turnout was twice as high, the county received 234,000 on Election Day and 69,000 the day after, she said.

Sawant, in particular, has insisted she gained momentum in the election’s final days, thanks to campaign events and national media coverage.

That’s one of the reasons the campaign was so confident Sawant could come back to win after being down on election night, spokesman Geov Parrish said this week.

Sawant, who would be the first socialist on the nonpartisan council in recent memory, was carrying just 46.1 percent of the returns on election night, but kept gaining over the week, and by Wednesday night had climbed to 49.99 percent, narrowly ahead of Conlin, a four-term incumbent.

On Wednesday, she won 52.1 percent of the 6,418 counted ballots in that race. About 15,000 ballots remain to be counted in the race.

A mandatory machine recount will be triggered if the candidates are within 2,000 votes and 0.5 percent of each other.

The last recount in a Seattle City Council general election was in 1989, when incumbent George Benson beat challenger Margaret Pageler by 451 votes, according to city archivist Scott Kline.

There was also a recount in the 2003 primary. In that race, Jean Godden narrowly edged Robert Rosencrantz and then went on to beat incumbent Judy Nicastro in the general election.

A recount looks less likely this year in the Bellevue City Council race.

On Wednesday, Wallace increased his lead by 28 votes and now is at 50.28 percent, compared with Kasner’s 49.54 percent.

Wallace, president of Wallace Properties, was first elected to the council in 2009 and is seeking a second term. Kasner, a substitute private-school teacher, is chairman of the East Bellevue Community Council.

In the city of SeaTac, both sides were girding for a recount, which under state law would have to be financed by one of the campaigns.

Proposition 1, which would create a $15-an-hour minimum wage for airport-related workers in SeaTac, captured 66 votes Wednesday. But the “no” side got 90, slicing the proposal’s support to just 50.17 percent.

An estimated 250 to 350 ballots still must be counted.

Another vote update for all races will be released Thursday afternoon.

Seattle Times staff reporters Amy Martinez, Keith Ervin and Justin Mayo contributed to this report.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal



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