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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control: Local recounts pass election scrutiny

Spokane County Auditor Vicki Dalton conducts a tiebreaker for Rockford Council Position 3 race between Ivan Willmschen and Rachelle Arriaga by shaking out of a milk bottle one of two numbered balls, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. Number 2 came out of and declared Willmschen the winner. He will advance to the general election against Mark Lonam Jr.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Spokane County Auditor Vicki Dalton conducts a tiebreaker for Rockford Council Position 3 race between Ivan Willmschen and Rachelle Arriaga by shaking out of a milk bottle one of two numbered balls, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. Number 2 came out of and declared Willmschen the winner. He will advance to the general election against Mark Lonam Jr. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Some Republican legislators seem to want the American election process to be drawn, quartered and a head stuck on a pike outside the Capitol for a period before the whole body politic is sewn back together and reanimated.

Maybe they can take some solace from the last couple of gasps of Spokane’s August primary in which some votes were closely scrutinized and a couple of problems revealed last week.

Spokane County conducted two hand recounts, as required by state law because of extremely close races.

In the Rockford Council Position 5 race, Ivan Willmschen and Rachelle Arriaga tied for second place with 34 votes each out of 106 cast. The recount didn’t change the tie, and Willmschen later advanced through a luck of the draw system.

In the Spokane City Council District 1 race, Jonathan Bingle, was clearly in first place but Naghmana Sherazi was a mere four votes ahead of Luc Jasmin III for second place and a coveted spot on the general election ballot. As required by state law, the county elections office hand-counted all 7,164 ballots and made some remarkable discoveries.

The first was that Sherazi did beat Jasmin by four votes, exactly as the machines recorded.

The second was that there was a vote cast for the council seat which the machines didn’t read. But it went to Bingle, so it didn’t affect the outcome.

The third was that the mystery of the county’s unaccounted-for vote was solved. The county was registering one more vote cast than the number of ballots counted. In doing the hand recount, election officials came across a ballot in which the voter filled in the oval for a write-in, but didn’t write a name in the blank.

It should have been reported as an “undervote” as if the race had been left blank. The software couldn’t read the ballot, which was an online ballot downloaded by someone who had lost their ballot and was running out of time to get a replacement, Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said.

“A human being had to look at it,” she said, adding the software will be fixed to catch that in the future, presumably not to jump to the conclusion that just because someone fills in the “Write In” circle that they know enough to put a name in the space.

All of this should – but likely won’t – assure some disgruntled Republicans that while no election system is 100% perfect, any problems tend to be small and detectable. The counting machine missed one vote out of some 7,100 cast. If it had the same error rate over the whole state in last year’s presidential election, that would be a swing of 571 votes.

Even if they were all for the same candidate, Donald Trump would have still lost Washington by more than 784,000 votes. Republican Loren Culp would still have lost to incumbent Jay Inslee by more than 500,000 votes.

Two weeks ago, a handful of GOP House members held a “hearing” at a Snohomish County church to call for a forensic audit of Washington’s 2020 election similar to actions in Arizona. A few days later, Rep. Vicky Kraft, R-Vancouver, sent a letter to Secretary of State Kim Wyman and all county elections officials “to request and demand that a forensic image of any and every election system in each county, especially any used in the November 2020 election, be captured before any upgrade is done.”

These lawmakers seem to think that putting the descriptor “forensic” in front of another word somehow conveys a sense of greater power or gravity.

County elections officials weren’t exactly sure what a forensic image was when they got Kraft’s letter. After a discussion, Dalton said what they think what it might mean would be many boatloads of data. One large county estimated theirs would be 5 terabytes – or 1 million megabytes – of data, said Dalton, who added she hasn’t bothered to estimate how big Spokane’s would be.

Wyman said a forensic audit, which is a tightly defined process generally used for the investigation of banks or financial institutions when crimes have been committed, has rigorous practices and standards.

A former three-term county auditor before becoming the state’s head elections officer, Wyman said there’s nothing comparable for elections. She’s not sure what’s going on in Arizona, but it’s not a forensic audit. Beyond that, Washington law doesn’t allow county elections officials to turn over their ballots and voting machines to a non-governmental third party on the say-so of the Legislature, as happened in Arizona.

Also worth noting – and this is just me talking, not Wyman or Dalton – the two state’s laws are different. It would take a court order, so holding a “hearing” and getting a demand from a minority of the minority party, isn’t going to get them anything but Twitter followers and “likes” on social media.

Dalton and Wyman acknowledge there are people who distrust the process. That’s not surprising, because it seems there’s an ongoing effort to raise questions about it by supporters of the former president.

“I think a significant portion of the population would feel more comfortable with the process if they understood it,” Dalton said.

Wyman said she encourages legislators and anyone else who has concerns about the election to watch the process. King and Thurston counties had representatives show up early this month to observe the primary.

“We’re always happy to walk people through the process,” she said. “They’re often surprised at the number of controls we have in place.”

It may take people other than politicians – like civic, business, neighborhood or religious leaders – to check out the elections system and assure voters they think it is safe, Wyman said.

That sounds eerily similar to another proposed solution to one of the nation’s other problems, the hesitancy to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Sounds good, but the jury’s still out on whether it will work.

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