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Originally published Wednesday, January 5, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Election scrutiny reveals provisional-vote flaws

An unknown number of provisional voters, some of whom may not even have been registered to vote, improperly put their ballots directly into vote-counting machines at polling places...

Seattle Times staff reporter

An unknown number of provisional voters, some of whom may not even have been registered to vote, improperly put their ballots directly into vote-counting machines at polling places, King County's elections superintendent said yesterday.

Once those ballots went into the machines, there was no way to separate them from legitimate ballots.

Provisional ballots are given on Election Day to voters who show up at the wrong precinct or whose registration is in question. The ballots are supposed to be put inside two envelopes, with the voter's name, address and signature on the outside, and counted only after the voter's status is verified.

Officials may never know exactly how many provisional ballots were improperly fed into voting machines, but a current review of polling-place records will give some indication of how widespread the problem was, county Elections Superintendent Bill Huennekens said.

Improperly cast provisional votes could play a role in a possible Republican challenge of Democrat Christine Gregoire's 129-vote victory over Republican Dino Rossi, whose campaign is preparing to ask that the election be set aside.

Miscast provisional votes could be one reason the number of ballots counted in King County outnumbered the list of voters who voted by 3,539.

"What part of it was it?" Huennekens said. "I don't know. Did it happen? Yes. Unfortunately, that's part of the process in King County, where we have over 2,600 precincts and over 540 polling locations and nearly 4,000 workers. It's a very human process, and in some cases that did happen."

State Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance, who plans to discuss the provisional-ballot issue at a news conference today, said it constituted a serious lapse in election security.

"We have very, very loose standards and procedures," he said. "I don't think our system in this state takes fraud and accuracy seriously."

In King County, a record 27,641 provisional ballots were counted in the election; 1,791 others were disqualified either because the voter wasn't registered or the signature on the ballot envelope didn't match the signature on file.

But in some cases, Huennekens said, poll workers mistakenly instructed provisional voters to put ballots directly into machines. In other cases, voters disregarded instructions and put their ballots into machines while workers were busy.

"I can't completely fault our poll workers 100 percent in this matter, especially when you're dealing with over 300,000 voters at the polls. People come in all kinds of varieties and shapes and sizes," Huennekens said.

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He said there was no evidence of voter fraud.

Jim Rigby, a Republican observer at a polling place in the lobby of the King County Administration Building on Election Day, said that the scene was "chaos" and that he objected when one man walked into the building and promptly shoved a ballot into the vote-counting machine.

Rigby said others at the poll site saw two other voters put provisional ballots in the machine.

Teams of workers yesterday began comparing poll-book entries with computer records as part of "reconciling" the numbers, an activity that occurs after every election. Results are to be released Friday.

It's not the first election King County has had difficulty getting the numbers of voters and ballots to match. In the 2003 off-year general election, the number of ballots cast exceeded the number of voters by 606, even after reconciliation was completed.

In 2002 and 2000, the problem was reversed. Voters credited with voting exceeded the number of ballots by 2,809 in 2002 and by 7,770 in 2000.

Part of the discrepancy this year reflects 74 domestic-violence victims who voted but whose names aren't included in the published voter list and 484 military and overseas voters who cast mail ballots under special rules, Huennekens said.

County Elections Director Dean Logan has said he expects most of the remaining discrepancy to be explained by inaccuracies in accounting for votes at the polls and by failure to update a computer database.

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

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