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Citizens panel on elections approved
Committee to be third review of November vote


A citizens oversight committee on elections was revived by the King County Council yesterday, activating a third probe of the troubled 2004 vote and the department that conducted it.

"I can't emphasize enough how important it is to have a citizens committee that's independent and asks the tough questions," said Republican Councilwoman Jane Hague, who teamed up with Democratic Council Chairman Larry Phillips to sponsor the measure.

The unanimous decision resuscitates the advisory commission that investigated problems with county elections in 2002 and 2003, which mainly involved the late mailing of absentee ballots. That commission was formed in July 2003 and disbanded after issuing its recommendations in May 2004.

Although many of the recommendations were adopted, the November election was plagued by problems of its own.

Mistakes by county elections officials have come under intense scrutiny in the Republican Party's legal challenge to the victory by Democrat Christine Gregoire in the governor's race, decided by 129 votes after a statewide hand recount. The trial of the GOP lawsuit starts May 23 in Wenatchee.

The citizens review would join two other evaluations of the election already put in motion: An investigation by a 10-member commission appointed by County Executive Ron Sims, and a $350,000 audit by an outside consulting agency that the council authorized last week.

The citizens commission may not delve as deeply into elections department procedures as the outside audit, Hague and Phillips said, but it will still identify problems and offer solutions.

The commission will include 11 voting members, drawn from the major political parties, the Chinese-speaking community, civic and other groups and voters, and two non-voting members, representing the secretary of state and the statewide association of county elections officials.

Its composition closely tracks the original committee, and Phillips and Hague, who will appoint the new panel, said they will try to recruit as many members of the earlier committee as possible. The new committee could be in place by next week, Hague said. 
The panel will make its recommendations by June 15, and then monitor the fall elections, submitting a follow-up report in February. The committee will then disband unless the council extends it.

The council's staff has estimated the committee could require $40,000 if it hires a consultant.

In tabulating nearly 900,000 votes in November, King County officials earlier have acknowledged:

About 785 provisional ballots were counted without the required validation. Provisional ballots are given to voters at polling places if their names do not appear on the rolls there, though they may be registered elsewhere.

94 valid absentee ballots were left, uncounted, in their mail envelopes.

Election workers mistakenly excluded 566 valid absentee ballots from two machine counts because they failed to check the voters' signatures adequately. A state Supreme Court ruling led to inclusion of those ballots in the hand recount after the signatures were verified.

Workers belatedly discovered 20 absentee ballots placed in the side compartments of voting machines, and the ballots could not be counted because there was no guarantee they were cast by Election Day.

In a legal deposition released late yesterday by the GOP, county Elections Director Dean Logan revised that number of belatedly discovered absentee ballots to 23.

Logan also acknowledged in the deposition that some provisional ballots were counted before the tabulation of absentee ballots was complete. State regulations indicate that all absentee ballots are to be processed before provisional ballots.

Logan said it was necessary to start counting some of the 31,000 provisional ballots before the last of the absentee votes arrived in order to meet the legal deadline for certification of the results, 15 days after the election. Absentee ballots are valid if they are postmarked by Election Day and arrive before certification.

In cases where one voter cast both types of ballot, the type tabulated first was counted, and the other one rejected, Logan said.

In addition, King County prosecutors have said hundreds of felons were illegally registered to vote in the election. Several voters are under investigation for casting absentee ballots issued to dead people, and one or more voters may have voted twice.

Officials also have said that some absentee voters in today's Valley Medical Center levy election in southeastern King County were mailed voter packets that did not contain ballots.

Four elections workers have been placed on paid administrative leave pending a departmental investigation of the foul-ups.

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