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Problem ballots mistakenly counted

Fri., Feb. 29, 2008

Nearly 500 presidential primary ballots that Spokane County elections workers rejected because of signature problems were opened and counted anyway, elections officials said Thursday.

None of the races on the ballot would have changed because of the mix-up, caused by a programming mistake in the Election Department’s automated sorting system, County Auditor Vicky Dalton said. It isn’t expected to affect ballots in the March 11 election.

“The software has been corrected,” she said.

The problem is the latest in a series of glitches the county Elections Department has experienced. The others involved printing errors.

The latest mistake arose in a new step in the county’s increasingly automated ballot-counting system.

Workers no longer handle ballot envelopes to check signatures, Dalton said. With the ballot envelope in the automated sorter, workers compare scanned images of the signature on each envelope with voter registration records. Workers then tell the sorting system if that envelope, and the ballot inside, should be rejected until it can be checked further.

On Feb. 15, 479 envelopes were rejected because signatures didn’t match the files. But those envelopes were not separated out by the sorting machine and instead were opened along with accepted envelopes. Ballots were removed from the envelopes and counted.

“Once ballots are removed from the outer return envelopes, they cannot be traced back to the voter,” Dalton said.

Election workers noticed the discrepancy in the counts of rejected envelopes that day, found and corrected the programming problem, then went back to determine how widespread the problem was, Dalton said. “I didn’t find out about it until late on election night,” she added.

Dalton said the office is “a bit chagrinned,” but defended the county’s increasing use of automation since switching to a vote-by-mail system in 2006.

“We have to go to automation” to process an increased number of ballots in the short period of time before elections are certified, she said.

A voter whose signature is rejected is given a chance to come to the Elections Office and submit a signature. So far, 95 of the rejected but counted ballots have had their signature problems corrected.

The presidential primary is unique in Washington state because it asks voters to mark on the envelope whether they are Democrat or Republican to vote for a presidential candidate. Voters facing tax issues could mark their ballot for those measures without indicating a party preference.

Of the ballots that should have been held out, 217 were marked Democratic, 226 Republican and 36 were unchecked from districts that had other measures. None of the races was so close that adding those ballots affected the outcome, Dalton said.

In the past, however, the state and county have faced measures where those votes could have made the difference. In 2004, Democrat Chris Gregoire beat Republican Dino Rossi in the governor’s race by 133 votes.

Earlier this week, the Elections Department sent out new return envelopes to about 2,000 voters who received ballots for the March 11 special election with return envelopes left over from the primary. The March election doesn’t require a party preference.

In November, a printing error forced the office to send new ballots to 833 voters in a rural Spokane County precinct where the original ballots didn’t have ovals next to statewide initiatives.


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