OLYMPIA — Washington’s tight, still undecided U.S. Senate race could prompt an automatic recount if the winner’s victory margin is slimmer than 0.5 percent.
So how would Washington’s election system hold up to scrutiny?
State and county elections officials say problems would be inevitable, but they’re confident the system would do them proud.
The race between incumbent Republican Slade Gorton and Democrat Maria Cantwell is the only still-unresolved Senate race in the country. This weekend, both had 48-plus percent of the vote, with about 2 million votes cast and 350,000 still uncounted.
Gorton was ahead.
Without Washington, the Nov. 7 election produced a 50-49 Senate split in the GOP’s favor, though the numbers could change if Al Gore is elected president, Joseph Lieberman gives up his Senate seat to become vice president and Connecticut’s Republican governor names his successor.
So there likely would be national interest in a recount here. And nobody’s perfect.
"Under great scrutiny, when you have that many people involved with that many ballots, you’ll be able to find something," said Gary McIntosh, state elections supervisor and the president of the National Association of State Election Directors.
For example, Clallam County had a technical problem with a machine that wasn’t tallying all the votes in statewide races. And a number of unregistered college students tried to vote in one Whatcom County precinct.
But such discrepancies are sorted out before elections are certified, McIntosh said.
"Those things are not examples of where people have done something wrong," he said. "They’re just things that happen in elections, and if somebody wanted to pounce on them, they could."
There might be "little things that get picked out a lot, but overall, our counties do a great job running elections," said Greg Nordlund, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office. "We have an extremely secure system. We get criticized for taking too long to count ballots, and we’re not interested in shortening that at the sake of secure elections."
But the process has its critics.
"There’s a great saying that democracy isn’t determined by how you vote but by who counts the votes," said Shawn Newman, attorney for the citizen-activist group CLEAN, or Citizens for Leaders with Ethics and Accountability Now!
"There’s no system of voting that’s free of corruption," Newman said.
And he contends Washington’s system "would have a very difficult time" withstanding intense scrutiny.
For one thing, he said, the 39 counties use different types of ballots, and that could cause problems such as some turning up in Florida.
"There needs to be a uniform ballot, a central authority that can address election irregularities — not just leave it up to the poor voters," Newman said.
He said the increase in mailed ballots has caused problems, too. About half of the 3.3 million ballots cast in Washington were cast by mail, and he worries that security is sacrificed for speed in tallying them.
But Democrat Paul Berry and Republican John Davidson, who observed King County’s U.S. Senate vote counters Thursday, said it would be extremely difficult for an elections worker to tilt the race.
"Obviously, the very fact that we’re standing here has some deterrent effect," he said.
And then there’s the systematic nature of the process.
Elections workers serve as sorters, verifiers, openers, tabulators, supervisors, security staff and "dupers," who duplicate ballots that arrive ripped or coffee-stained or otherwise unreadable by the counting machines.
"If you would see what some of these people do to their ballots," marveled Pierce County Auditor Cathy Pearsall-Stipek.
"They refuse to write just one line. They scribble, they write notes. They crisscross … . We have jam. We have coffee. We had one where it had oil. They write love notes to me. And what they don’t seem to realize is that all of that just costs more money, because we have to remake them so they can go through the machine," she said.
Recopied ballots are marked with a code that allows election bosses and party watchdogs to track down originals and make sure the votes match. In fact, there’s a paper trail for just about every aspect of the process.
"The people are professional," Davidson said. "If you have a problem, it’s usually a machine problem or a ballot problem. If you see a machine that starts jamming a lot or rejecting a lot, you want to find out what kind it is."
King County elections chief Bob Bruce said he would welcome the scrutiny prompted by the close Senate race, but is relieved not to be living under a microscope like his counterparts in Florida.
"These lawyers that do come in from out of state and from within are not there to determine the accuracy of the vote," McIntosh said. "They’re there to make sure their candidate wins."
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