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County's voting troubles spur changes nationwide.
Seattle Times.  January 29, 2003 by Emily Heffter, Times Snohomish County bureau

EVERETT ? Snohomish County's voting-machine problems may end up improving the way the machines operate here and elsewhere.

Two lights that read the marks on Snohomish County absentee ballots were worn out when poll workers fed through November's general-election ballots, company representatives from Sequoia Voting Systems said last week.

Sequoia services Snohomish County's eight machines that count absentee ballots.

The county initially bought five of the machines in 1995 for about $60,000 each. Over the past seven years, as more people began voting absentee, the county bought three more machines.

Voters at the polls last fall used electronic machines for the first time and were the first county in the state to do so, but the machines that had the problem were for counting paper absentee ballots.

As a result of Snohomish County's problems, Sequoia is changing its test for the 50 machines it services nationwide.

The new test will make sure machines can read all kinds of pencil and black-pen marks on ballots. When the lights wear out, Sequoia determined, they stop reading some types of ink. Sequoia also replaced the broken parts as part of the county's contract.

The machines are expected to be used for the local election Tuesday.

Snohomish County was the first jurisdiction to catch the problem, said Sheree Noell, a sales executive for Sequoia.

The problem came to light this winter when the Snohomish County Republican Party pointed out that up to 25 percent fewer votes than voters were counted in some county legislative races. Two recounts showed more than 21,000 votes were missed in the county's legislative races alone, although none of the corrected counts changed the election results.

The Snohomish County Auditor's Office called Sequoia to analyze the machines.

"It's just something that we've been observing, and we've been thinking for a while that the undercounts were getting too high," said Frauna Hoglund, chairwoman of the Snohomish County GOP.

Though some county residents expressed skepticism at a public hearing last week, county Auditor Bob Terwilliger said he is convinced the problem with the machines had been fixed.

Absentee ballots for Tuesday's election were sent out earlier this month. The envelopes they were sent in instruct voters to use pencil, not black pen as in previous elections. But county officials said the changed instructions were premature. Voters can use pencil or black pen to fill out ballots.

Emily Heffter: 425-783-0624 or eheffter@seattletimes.com.

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