Pierce County reveals uncounted votes
50 ballots add to the muddle in election challenge
By GREGORY ROBERTS
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER 28 April 2005
The votes of 50 Pierce County voters were mistakenly left out of the tally for the November election because workers overlooked ballots earmarked for machine tabulation, county Auditor Pat McCarthy said yesterday.
That election included the 129-vote victory by Democrat Christine Gregoire over Republican Dino Rossi in the governor's race, after a hand recount of more than 2.8 million votes statewide. The GOP is suing to overturn the result in a trial starting May 23 in Wenatchee.
The snafu in Pierce County was part of a widespread pattern of election foul-ups, state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance said.
"It just leads to the conclusion that you can't have any confidence in the results of this election," Vance said.
"There were problems all over the state," Vance said. "The worst problems were in King County, but there were problems all over the state."
The Republicans have concentrated their legal and rhetorical offensive on King County, a Democratic stronghold that gave Gregoire an edge over Rossi of 58 percent to 40 percent, amounting to more than 150,000 votes. Libertarian Ruth Bennett also was on the ballot.
"Rossi over and over again has spent all of his time focusing on King County as if that were the only county in the state," Democratic lawyer David McDonald said.
The issue of mishandled and illegal votes and where they came from is critical to Rossi's legal case.
In pretrial filings, GOP lawyers have urged Chelan County Superior Court Judge John Bridges to deduct improper votes from the candidates' totals in proportion to the percentage of votes each candidate received in the precincts where the votes originated. So improper votes from pro-Gregoire precincts would cut more deeply against her in that calculation.
The Democrats say that approach is not permitted under state law. Both sides will argue the point in a hearing Monday.
The Republicans have submitted to Bridges a list of 1,335 voters whose ballots they say were wrongfully counted. Most of the ballots fall into two categories: 946 ballots cast by felons and 317 provisional ballots tabulated without the required prior validation.
Felons are barred from voting by the state constitution unless their rights have been restored. Of the 946 felons on the GOP list, 726 are from King County, with the rest scattered among a dozen other counties.
Provisional ballots are issued at polling places to voters whose names don't show up on the voter rolls for their precincts, or to those the records show have received absentee ballots. The ballots are supposed to be held aside until information about the voter can be checked. But in a number of counties, provisional ballots were mixed in with regular ballots and counted before the validation.
Of the GOP's names of voters casting improper provisional ballots, all but a handful come from King County, where election officials have acknowledged counting about 785 provisional ballots before validation. None of the names was from Pierce County, but McCarthy said 164 unverified provisional ballots were counted there, and just one came from Benton County, where auditor Bobbie Gagner said 37 provisionals were tallied without validation.
Rossi carried Pierce by 51 percent to 47 percent over Gregoire, and Benton by 68 percent to 30 percent.
If Bridges permits the Republicans' statistical strategy, the Democrats hope to counter it with improper votes from Rossi country, or possibly proper votes that were mistakenly not counted and that may favor Gregoire. The GOP wants Bridges to bar the Democrats from raising any offsetting errors.
The 50 uncounted ballots in Pierce County are not yet part of the court case for either side. McCarthy said her staff discovered them in the last week of December, after the hand recount was certified and the books closed.
The 50 ballots were among 30,000 duplicate ballots that were generated by election workers in place of ballots that could not be counted by machine, because they were marked improperly or were otherwise machine-unready, McCarthy said. Those 30,000 original ballots were cast by legitimate voters who made their intent clear, she said.
Once duplicated, the ballots are supposed to be fed into counting machines. But those 50 were overlooked and never counted, she said.
"We want to be perfect," McCarthy said. "But we're human beings and we're not perfect and that's the truth."