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Official says mistakes ‘inadvertent’

Richard Roesler Staff writer

WENATCHEE – Despite Republican claims of “ballot-stuffing” in last year’s razor-thin gubernatorial election, the state elections director said Tuesday that virtually all the counting errors seem to have been innocent mistakes.

“What I saw were for the most part inadvertent mistakes and errors of human beings who were working their hearts out to deliver a fair and impartial (election),” said Nick Handy, director of elections under Secretary of State Sam Reed.

In response, a Republican lawyer alleged that Handy is siding with a “good old boys club” of county election officials – and trying to “cover up” their mistakes.

“That is an outrageous situation,” said Dale Foreman, speaking on the steps outside the Chelan County courtroom where the case is in its second week. “He’s claiming to be neutral when he’s biased as heck.”

Republicans say that hundreds of felons voted illegally in the race, which Democrat Christine Gregoire won by just 129 votes. Republican Dino Rossi narrowly won the initial machine count and a subsequent automated recount; Gregoire pulled ahead during a final hand-count of the more than 2.8 million ballots and electronic voting records. She was sworn in Jan. 12.

Republicans say they’ve found evidence that hundreds of felons voted illegally and instances of people voting twice or voting on behalf of dead people. County election officials have also acknowledged that hundreds of so-called provisional ballots were improperly fed into poll-site counting machines, instead of being checked first to make sure that the voter was legitimate.

All told, Republicans say, they can show 2,820 illegal votes.

“That’s almost 20 times the margin of error,” Foreman said. “We just have to have a new election. The people know that this election was not fair.”

Democrats say that mistakes happen in every election, and that without yanking hundreds of voters into court and forcing them to testify how they voted – which no one expects to happen – Republicans cannot prove that the mistakes would have changed the outcome of the election.

“I don’t think anyone who put their dinner under a microscope would want to eat it,” said Democratic attorney Jenny Durkan. “And that’s what’s happened in this election.”

Handy saw many of the election problems up close. During the election and the frenzied fallout, with recount after recount and multiple lawsuits being filed, he set up a “war room” at the Secretary of State’s office. He dispatched staffers across the state to help out with local election problems as they were discovered: ballots that had been misplaced, machines that had apparently counted a ballot twice, local election offices struggling under extreme party and press scrutiny to set up a hand recount on a scale never before seen in Washington.

Yes, there were problems, Handy said. It was a serious mistake for poll workers to allow those provisional ballots to be fed, unchecked, into tabulating machines, he said. He also criticized two King County election workers, Nicole Way and Garth Fell, for faking a number on a ballot summary because they weren’t sure how many absentee ballots had been sent in by voters.

But by and large, Handy said, the mistakes were “inadvertent” – an adjective he used over and over again. Among them:

“In Snohomish County, workers mistakenly stacked a ballot-filled mail tray in among a bunch of empty trays, leaving those votes initially uncounted.

“Cowlitz County officials were perplexed when they ended up with 99 fewer votes in the second count than in the first. The reason: Some votes from one precinct were accidentally tallied twice in the first count.

“In Kittitas County, 34 ballots with unclear signatures were supposed to be examined and ruled on by the local canvassing board. Instead, a worker set them down. They were covered up with other documents, and only discovered after the first tally.

“Grant County gained several dozen votes in the second count. The reason, Handy said, is apparently that some absentee ballots didn’t get counted in the first count.

If there was real fraud or ballot-stuffing going on, Handy said, the mistakes would likely have overwhelmingly favored one candidate. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, he said. (In fact, Democratic attorneys plan to spend today trying to demonstrate that the same sorts of errors Republicans point to in pro-Gregoire counties also happened in pro-Rossi counties.)

“Inadvertent kinds of mistakes tend to fall proportionately to both sides,” Handy said.

Republicans counter that in such a tight election – the closest governor’s race in American history – as few as 130 improper votes could mean that the wrong person is living in the governor’s mansion today.

Foreman tried hard Tuesday to discredit Handy, at one point accusing the election director of being “a cheerleader” for county election officials, rather than enforcing election laws.

Foreman pointed to e-mails in which Handy criticized Republicans’ portrayal of election problems, particularly the fact that more votes were counted than there were people credited with voting. In Republican press releases and conservative talk radio, that was touted as stark evidence of wrongdoing.

But Handy said Tuesday that it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. In some cases, voters may not have signed a poll book. And if a worker accidentally skips a page of voters or scans in someone’s name twice, it can make things look much worse than they really are, he said.

So he was irked when Republicans began highlighting the disparity in January.

“I expect this will be a major issue raised by the Republicans, as they have built their entire public affairs campaign (“Every Vote Should Have a Voter”) around this theme and worked it hard,” Handy wrote in an e-mail to a state lawyer. “If we can successfully demonstrate that this is an unfounded claim, I would hope that this would severely undermine the confidence of the court in the other R(epublican) claims.”

To Foreman, that e-mail was evidence that Handy is biased against Republicans.

“You’re neutral in this case?” he asked.

“Yes, I am,” said Handy.

Handy, who once ran for state Lands Commissioner as a Republican, said his concern had nothing to do with party.

“I felt very strongly that it was a misleading campaign,” he said. “I though that this was really undermining the trust and confidence of the average voter in the election system.”

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