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‘Remade’ votes center of ruling

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 19, 2008

Judge rejects GOP’s request to see ballots

Washington’s closest legislative race, headed for a hand recount in December, made a detour through Spokane County Superior Court on Tuesday.

Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno denied a request by the House Republican Organizational Committee for copies of more than 7,000 ballots that had to be “remade” by elections workers because the vote-tabulating machines couldn’t read them.

Steven Dixson, an attorney for the GOP organization, cited the state’s public records law in arguing the group was entitled to see the original ballots and the duplicates made by elections workers. He also asked that the county’s processing of the remaining votes be stopped until the originals can be compared to the duplicates in the 6th Legislative District.

A race for state House of Representatives seat in that district has Democratic challenger John Driscoll ahead of Republican incumbent John Ahern by 63 votes out of more than 70,000 cast.

“This is really about transparency in elections,” Dixson argued.

But Dan Catt, the deputy county prosecutor who handles elections matters, said the original ballots and the duplicates are in sealed containers, and under state law the seal can’t be broken without proof of inaccuracy or discrepancies. There hasn’t been any such evidence, he said.

“Ballots at this stage are not public records,” Catt said.

Earlier in the day, elections workers compared a group of 200 remade ballots from around the county to the original ballots that couldn’t be read because they were torn, wrinkled, had unusual marks or were marked with red ink or other colors that the machines can’t read. Of the 200 ballots, one – from the 4th Legislative District – was improperly marked for four write-in candidates.

Four mistakes out of 200 ballots is an error rate of 2 percent. The Driscoll-Ahern race was separated by less than one-tenth of 1 percent, so a problem of that magnitude could alter the race’s outcome, Dixson said.

But those four mistakes are really out of more than 4,400 races, because each ballot has a minimum of 22 races on it, Catt said. That would mean an error rate of nine-one hundredths of 1 percent.

Moreno was unconvinced of the Republicans’ arguments. They don’t have evidence of misfeasance, which would give them some options, she said.

“I’m looking for a real good reason why I should grant this extreme remedy, and I’m not seeing it,” she said.

Later in the afternoon, the county canvassing board defeated, on a 2-1 vote, a motion to compare the 7,000 remade ballots to their originals.

Chief deputy civil prosecutor Jim Emacio, who sits on the canvassing board, said the review would be expensive, but “costs should not take precedence over ensuring the election is accurate.”

County Commissioner Bonnie Mager, who also is on the board, said she’d be inclined to support a full review if Tuesday’s check had revealed problems with votes for candidates on the ballot, rather than for write-ins. Write-ins are automatically reviewed in recounts, she said, and “it looks as though this election is headed for a recount,” she said. Mager and county Auditor Vicky Dalton voted against the full review.

The last ballots will be counted Monday, and the Driscoll-Ahern race is expected to get even closer. Observers from the political parties who watched Tuesday’s review said Ahern had more votes than Driscoll among the ballots from the 6th District that were checked, but they weren’t allowed to keep a full tally. Those votes will be added into the totals Monday, as well as the remaining ballots that have trickled in by mail and are properly postmarked.

A hand recount is required whenever a race is within one-fourth of 1 percent. If it’s needed, the recount will begin Dec. 2 and take about three days, Elections Manager Mike McLaughlin said.


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