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Saturday, May 21, 2005 - Page updated at 12:39 a.m.

Manager aware of flawed ballot report

Seattle Times staff reporter

King County Elections Director Dean Logan yesterday said his staff had used "flawed methodology" but hadn't attempted to falsify a report on absentee ballots cast in the contested November election.

Yet even as Logan sought to control damage from revelations about the ballot report, a manager testified that Elections Superintendent Bill Huennekens knew in November that the report was inaccurate. Huennekens didn't inform his boss or the county canvassing board, which certifies election results.

Garth Fell, assistant superintendent of ballot processing and delivery, said in a newly released legal deposition that Huennekens was aware of the flaws before the canvassing board certified the results.

Fell said the ballot report was prepared by absentee-ballot supervisor Nicole Way "in conjunction with myself and additional workings with the superintendent of elections, Bill Huennekens."

Huennekens could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Logan said he didn't learn about the flaws in the ballot report until he was asked recently about its seemingly perfect numbers. Asked yesterday about Huennekens' reported role in preparing the report, he said, "I have no reason to question any of my employees' testimony at the deposition."

State officials have said King County's Mail Ballot Report fell short of a requirement in the Washington Administrative Code that counties reconcile the number of absentee ballots returned by voters with the number of ballots accepted or rejected.

The report didn't base the ballots-returned number on an actual count of ballots received from voters. Rather, Way and Fell testified, they calculated the number by simply adding the number of ballots accepted and rejected.

Way said they used the misleading number because they couldn't figure out how many ballots were returned by voters. She blamed the accounting problem to a newly installed computer system.

Auditing records not presented to the canvassing board showed significant discrepancies in ballot numbers at every step of the process.

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Fell testified that the failure to keep close track of absentee ballots allowed 95 ballots to go uncounted in the close governor's race. Those valid ballots were found in their original envelopes in March.

Fell and Way were deposed in connection with the state Republican Party's attempt to overturn the election of Democrat Christine Gregoire as governor. Gregoire defeated Republican Dino Rossi in a manual recount by 129 votes after Rossi narrowly won two earlier counts.

The trial starts Monday in Chelan County Superior Court.

Logan said the Mail Ballot Report — which incorrectly indicated that all absentee ballots were accounted for — shows his office needs to improve its procedures for tracking and reporting ballot numbers.

"What I don't think that indicates, nor occurred, was a falsification of the report or a collaborative collusion on the part of employees here," Logan said. "... It is not the same thing as an employee trying to falsify reports or fix an election, or fraud."

When employees were asked about the report's misleading number, he said, they were forthright and made "no effort to conceal that."

Logan, who became elections director in September 2003, said he has concluded that employees have consistently misreported the number of returned ballots since at least 2000.

Two former election officials disputed that. "No, sorry. Don't agree," said former Elections Director Bob Bruce, who retired in 2001. He said his reports of ballots returned were based on actual counts of ballots as they came in.

Former Elections Superintendent Julie Anne Kempf also disagreed, saying her reports were based on ballot returns and rarely showed a significant discrepancy. Kempf was fired for allegedly lying about the delayed mailing of absentee ballots in 2002, a charge she denies.

State Elections Director Nick Handy said it appears King County violated state regulations for accounting for absentee ballots. But his agency, the Office of the Secretary of State, has no enforcement powers in the matter.

Handy said a county prosecutor could file criminal charges if criminal behavior were suspected, but he said he saw no indication of criminal conduct.

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

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