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Council may ignore paper-backup law for elections

By Christopher Schwarzen

Seattle Times Snohomish County Bureau   14 September 2005

Despite a Jan. 1 compliance deadline, the Snohomish County Council may wait until after that date to spend about $1 million for backup election equipment.

For weeks, the council has debated whether to purchase a system that creates a paper trail of votes cast on electronic voting machines. The paper backup will be required by state law, effective Jan. 1, after last year's gubernatorial-election debacle.

But with 30 of the state's 39 counties having approved all-mail voting systems, there's a chance the state Legislature will revive one of two bills that would convert the entire state to all-mail balloting.

There's no enforcement provision in the law requiring the backup equipment, and noncompliance could be worth $1 million that would stay in the bank for the county.

County Auditor Bob Terwilliger will recommend during a public hearing on the proposed expenditure today that the council hold off any purchase until the Legislature reconvenes. The Auditor's Office oversees the county's elections division.

"The only thing that stopped the two bills last time was lack of an agreement on a date," Terwilliger said. "One said 2008, the other 2012. When no one could agree, they left it up to the counties."

King, Pierce and Snohomish counties ? with 60 percent of the state's registered voters ? have resisted all-mail voting. . But Terwilliger said Snohomish County could be ready to convert tomorrow, as could Pierce County, where 80 percent of voters already use mail-in ballots.

Terwilliger has urged the council to join the all-mail ranks, which could increase to 32 counties before year's end. Spokane and Chelan counties are scheduled to vote on the matter.

Snohomish County Councilman John Koster agreed that waiting to approve the money is wise advice.

"At this point, even if we ordered the machines, they wouldn't be here until next year, so we're already going to be noncompliant," Koster said.

Koster, however, is opposed to all-mail balloting, even though it would save the county thousands of dollars annually. An envelope containing a mail-in ballot must be signed, and Koster said there would be too much opportunity for signature fraud. He also doesn't want to take away a voter's privacy rights at the polls.

His view is supported by Councilmen Gary Nelson and Jeff Sax, who round out the board's Republican majority.

Democratic Councilman Dave Gossett said he firmly supports an all-mail system. He has questioned the expenditure on equipment that Terwilliger has said will be outdated in three years. Equipment upkeep is slated at $600,000 annually.

The council's other Democrat, Kirke Sievers, said he's also against the expenditure.

Projections suggest Snohomish County voters increasingly will choose mail-in ballots over poll voting.

In April, 61 percent of 359,000 voters in the county were registered to receive absentee ballots. The county estimates that will rise to 70 percent by December 2006 and to 82 percent by December 2009, according to Terwilliger.

The need for electronic voting machines ? and backup paper units ? is expected to decrease during those periods, to 700 machines by December 2006 and 450 by December 2009.

County Executive Aaron Reardon recently suggested the question be considered as an advisory ballot issue. Gossett said he may propose the idea, which has not been discussed by the council.

Koster said an advisory vote wouldn't mean much.

"In the end, the County Council still is the one that has to decide," he said.

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