Party observers keep close watch on count

Anticipating a nip-and-tuck battle for governor, the state’s Democratic and Republican parties are deploying volunteers and lawyers to election offices around the state to keep watch on the counting of ballots cast in today’s election.

Already the parties have had observers at the Bethany Processing Center in Everett where Snohomish County election workers are processing ballots for tallying when voting ends tonight at 8 p.m.

Officials with the gubernatorial campaigns of Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee said they’ll be sending observers to watch the tabulating today and until the outcome is certain.

No one in either campaign or political party is raising any red flags about the procedures around the state; such behavior is standard operating procedure since the 2004 race for governor went into overtime with two recounts, then a lawsuit.

“We are, of course, preparing for any possible scenario,” said Jaime Smith, spokeswoman for the Inslee campaign. “We do have volunteers who will be staffing the ballot-counting stations to monitor to make sure there are no irregularities.”

She and her counterpart in the McKenna operation each expressed confidence their candidate can win handily enough to avert a protracted post-election scuffle to decide the winner.

“I don’t know that we’ll need to worry about the 2004 situation that we all know so well,” said Charles McCray, spokesman for the McKenna campaign. “The goal is to win by a recount-proof majority and we think we can make that happen.”

Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel said Monday that volunteers from the parties began showing up last week with the number of onlookers at this stage about the same as the last couple of elections.

More people will be showing up once the machines start churning out results. Counting will continue for three weeks before results in the county are certified; Secretary of State Sam Reed will certify the statewide election Dec. 6.

Weikel is forecasting a turnout of 85 percent. As of Monday morning, 197,000 ballots had come back amounting to about 47 percent of the county’s registered voters.

Observers are watching as elections staff extract ballots from envelopes, verify the signatures of the voters who sent them in and prepare them for tabulating.

There are ballots set aside because, for example, they are not signed or the voter’s signature doesn’t match what is on the person’s registration card.

In such cases, county election officials will contact the voter to resolve the question. So, too, may a representative of a party or candidate’s campaign. They get the list of these voters and if they identify one as a supporter, they want to encourage that person to resolve the issue so their ballot gets counted.

Meanwhile, the state Republican Party is causing a bit of a stir with its efforts to turn out voters. They’re using volunteers and paid workers to go to the homes of registered voters who’ve not yet returned their ballot and offering to deliver it for them. In King County, they’ve even parked vans at different locations to serve as mobile drop boxes.

Kirby Wilbur, chairman of the state GOP, said Democrats did something similar in 2010 with paid workers though they did not use vans.

“We’re doing what they did,” he said. “I thought it was smart.”

Over the weekend, Democratic Party leaders objected loudly to the effort.

State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz said in a statement, Republicans should be encouraging people to return their ballot through official means “but instead they are creating a situation fraught with the opportunity of voter fraud.”

Weikel said she knows both parties in 2010 had people going to people’s homes and collecting ballots for delivery.

She’s not surprised it’s happening again though she’s not a fan. It’s risky for voters because if they trust their ballot to a third party and it doesn’t get turned in there’s nothing the county can do about it.

“It is not something I would recommend voters do,” she said. “I want to encourage voters to take their ballots to a drop box or put them in the mail or bring them to us directly.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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