2008 election a test of county’s election reforms

What is happening at the King County Elections Office in Renton today began in 2004, in the wake of a highly controversial governor's election that sparked hundreds of reforms in how the county runs elections. Democrat Christine Gregoire won that election by just 129 votes – statewide – after recounts and court rulings. Her opponent: Dino Rossi.

A voter slides a completed election ballot into the AccuVote machine at the Kent Commons Nov. 4.

A voter slides a completed election ballot into the AccuVote machine at the Kent Commons Nov. 4.

What is happening at the King County Elections Office in Renton today began in 2004, in the wake of a highly controversial governor’s election that sparked hundreds of reforms in how the county runs elections.

Democrat Christine Gregoire won that election by just 129 votes – statewide – after recounts and court rulings. Her opponent: Dino Rossi.

This time around, Gregoire and Rossi were locked in what appeared to be another tight race. But this time, Gregoire’s victory Tuesday night over Rossi was clear-cut, although the Republicans still will continue to watch the counting of ballots closely over the next three weeks.

This time, the elections office is ready to ensure it gets the results right, with new procedures in place and a heavy emphasis on ballot security.

The count is unfolding in a two-story building on Grady Way in Renton, next to Interstate 405.

Visitors to observe the elections process are asked to leave their coats at checkin and surrender any pens or pencils so there’s no chance to tamper with a ballot.

If something to write with is absolutely needed (say, to take notes), the visitor will receive a pen with green or red ink. Neither color is read by a tabulating machine. That’s why when filling out a ballot, voters need to use a pen with black or blue ink (no pencils or soft-tipped pens which bleed through the ballot).

If there’s still a downside, it’s the reforms will mean that the results of a close election won’t become known for days. Another factor, of course, is that absentee ballots – which will become the standard for voting in the future – can be postmarked as late as election day. Those ballots continue to come in for days and must be processed and counted.

Bobbie Egan, a spokeswoman for the elections office, is asking for patience.

“We are taking our time,” said Egan. But, the goal is to run a secure election that gets the results right, she said.

Tuesday’s election, she said, is a test of all the election reforms – about 350 – the county has made in the past four years.

That security is a watchword at the elections center is clear almost immediately. It’s even more apparent on the second floor of the building – on Grady Way in Renton, right next to Interstate 405.

Sheriff’s deputies are stationed at the entry to an expansive work area where all functions of validating and counting ballots occur. Entry to the area is by special keycard and visitors are escorted. In some areas, including where ballots are stored, the access is limited to those who have an operational reason to go inside.

Fifty-nine security cameras keep an eye on everything and everyone. Proper security protocol is a way of life, all the way to leaving nothing unattended, even a notebook.

If there is a security breach at an access point, an ear-piercing alarm goes off.

All this security is designed to protect the integrity of the voting process, something that was questioned following the 2004 election.

About 500 workers are processing and counting the ballots, all the way from opening ballots, to verifying signatures, to a visual inspection of each ballot for errors to the actual counting of the ballots on high-speed machines.

Reconciliation is an important word, ensuring that every ballot is accounted for and if valid, is counted. In every recent election, nearly 100 percent of ballots – even out of 10s of thousands – have been properly reconciled.

In 2004 some ballots remained in the security envelope, which for some reason weren’t opened. Today, there’s a hole in the security envelope so workers can see there is something inside.

And then there was an election a couple years ago when the ballots had a weight problem. Like this year’s state and presidential election, the ballot then was 18 inches long. But the ballot weighed too much for just a single first-class stamp. The ballots were still delivered and the county made up the difference.

To solve that weight problem, the county switched to a lighter-weight paper.


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