Ballot glitches concern voters
County officials assure accuracy
JENNIFER LATSON THE OLYMPIAN 28 October 2004
As Election Day nears, problems with Thurston County's absentee ballot system have some voters worried about whether their votes will count, or if some people's will count twice.
Some absentee voters have sent their ballots in only to have them come back in the mail. Others still haven't received their absentee ballots. A few voters have received multiple ballots.
None of the problems will affect the election definitely nowhere near the way Florida's was affected four years ago, Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman said.
The auditor's office has hired about 50 extra people to work through the election, handling last-minute problems, verifying signatures and checking to see whether people have voted twice, using a computer system that records every ballot cast.
"We've mailed out 98,000 ballots, and we've already gotten over 30,000 back," Wyman said earlier this week. "We haven't had a lot of problems."
Olympia resident Shan Gill ped his absentee ballot in the mail Saturday. Two days later, it was back in his post office box.
"I was very surprised, because there wasn't anything that said 'insufficient postage,'" Gill said. "I thought, 'Oh, no.'"
The ballot wasn't returned because of something Gill did wrong, but because of a flaw in the envelope's design, according to Olympia Postmaster Ron Kusunose.
It wasn't the first one to be sent back.
"It's been a problem across the country," Kusunose said. "The reason is because if you flip an absentee ballot over, it has the (return) address in the same location as the address block normally. It's in the middle and it's bar-coded."
The absentee ballots sometimes get turned over in the post office's automated scanners and go back to the address on the front, despite a label telling carriers not to return them to the sender.
"In a couple instances, they missed it," Kusunose said. "It's a problem ... (ballot makers) just haven't found a way to design around yet."
Only two people have complained to the post office about having ballots returned to them, Kusunose said. Carriers have caught some before delivering them, but Kusunose didn't know how many.
"It's not like we get handfuls a day. Just a few times," the postmaster said.
Wyman said the envelope design was not a problem, although ballots have been returned to people in previous election years.
"We've been doing it this way for 10 years," the auditor said. "You get the occasional one that gets sent back to a voter" but is delivered to the auditor's office once it gets put back in the mail.
Even if people mail their ballots Nov. 2 and get them back, it won't prevent them from having their votes counted as long as they send them again, she said.
"We have 15 days to certify the election" and will count the earliest postmark on the ballot, she said.
Gill was still concerned.
"What if they mail the ballots and take off? They're in Arizona for the rest of the winter and come back, and here's their ballot sitting there?" he asked. "There are some bad consequences that could come of this."
Julian Seidenberg registered to vote in Olympia a few months ago for the November election. He received two absentee ballots: one for himself and one for Julian Sirdenberg.
He wonders if he could vote twice, using the correct ballot and the one with the typographical error.
"I'm going to vote just for me, but going along with this whole mess that's the voter situation, it's kind of funny," Seidenberg said. "I don't know what goes on in the process, but it's how we choose our leaders, and if there's mistakes like that being made, how seriously can we take it?"
Former Olympia resident Kasia Pierzga also got a second ballot.
Pierzga recently moved to Skagit County, where she registered to vote in August, checking a box that said she had been registered in Olympia and assuming she would be taken off the Thurston County voter rolls.
She had already voted her Skagit County absentee ballot when she got a Thurston County ballot forwarded to her.
"Tempting as it was to cast an additional ballot, I couldn't bring myself to do it," she said, adding that she wondered why she was given the opportunity, especially "in a year where everybody is watching to see errors in voting."
Pierzga's vote could count in both counties: Skagit County hasn't notified Thurston County yet that she's registered there, Wyman said.
But if she did vote twice, it would catch up with her when the two counties share notes. She would be guilty of a felony.
"I liken it to robbing a bank," Wyman said. "There are safeguards in place, but if a voter really wants to try, they could get around them. We also have ways to prosecute."
You don't have to move away to get multiple ballots; you just have to ask. The auditor's office will send replacements for almost any reason.
"It's not uncommon for us to issue multiple ballots," Wyman said. "Maybe they lost their first one; maybe their dog ate it. We'll send as many as we need to get a voted one back. The security is on our side."
But some people still haven't gotten their original ballots, which were mailed in mid-October.
The auditor's office is resending ballots to an entire street in south Thurston County Zenkner Road where many of the 36 residents have called to say they never arrived.
At least 10 of the two dozen or so absentee voters at the Saint Martin's monastery in Lacey also didn't receive their ballots, according to Father Alfred Hulscher.
The priests and brothers were told they could receive replacements, but some of them will be leaving town soon, Hulscher said.
"We felt people might not even vote," Hulscher said. "They've got all these concerns about people voting, and all we need is a local mix-up."