Local election officials confident of our system


Herald Writer

EVERETT — Snohomish County election officials say they’re glad they changed our ballot system five years ago so that what apparently happened in Florida isn’t likely to occur here.

Some voters in Florida say they were confused by how the presidential candidates’ names were arranged on the ballot, and they inadvertently punched the hole for the Reform Party’s Pat Buchanan instead of Democrat Al Gore.

Rather than hole punching, voters in Snohomish County are asked to draw lines that connect the arrows next to the preferred candidates’ names.

If voters make a mistake at the polls, they can just get a new ballot, the county’s elections manager, Scott Konopasek, said Thursday. Absentee voters can white-out or write a note next to the error. The counting machine rejects those ballots initially, but election workers input the votes later.

"The ballots we have are much friendlier to absentee voters," Konopasek said. "It’s clearly a lot easier for voters to understand and make their intent known."

Konopasek was an elections manager in Utah through the last presidential election, where he used exactly the same ballots as the disputed ones in Florida.

"The problem is not inherent in the system, it’s in the way they chose to lay out their ballot," he said.

The Florida ballot showed Gore second on the list, but the way it was designed, a punch in the second hole was a vote for Buchanan. Arrows clearly marked which hole to punch, but it apparently still confused thousands of voters.

Potential voter fraud is another issue coming to light as a result of the tight election results.

Election officials in Washington check every signature on absentee ballots against the one on file from the person’s voter registration. If they don’t match, the voter is contacted. And if a ballot is unsigned, a copy is sent to the voter for a signature.

But they don’t check the identification or signatures of those who vote at the polls unless someone’s vote is challenged or a poll worker’s suspicion is raised.

"Our system is based upon trust," Konopasek said. "The presumption is that the people working at the polls know their neighbors, and we haven’t updated that, even though we’ve become disconnected from our neighbors."

Ralph Munro has been Washington’s secretary of state for 20 years, and he said he supports the honor-based system.

"You have to start with the premise that 99.99999 percent of the American voters are honest," Munro said. "I could count the number of fraud allegations in our state (from the past two decades) on one hand.

"There are people out there who think every American is a crook and everyone’s out to steal the election, and it’s just not true," he added.

With the motor-voter law, proof of citizenship isn’t required in order to register to vote. Munro said that’s because there are no U.S. identification cards to prove that someone is a citizen, and most people don’t have passports.

But he said that isn’t a problem, either.

"Frankly, the last thing a non-U.S. citizen wants to do is register to vote, because it’s a federal offense," he said. "The illegals may want to get a driver’s license, but they don’t want to screw around with voting."

The punishment for fraudulent voting ranges from fines to prison terms, depending on the offense.

Munro could only remember one incident, about 10 years ago, when officials discovered that a Canadian citizen was living and voting in Wenatchee. But prosecutors decided not to press charges, and the man stopped voting.

"There’s always people who want to challenge the system, but we have enough safeguards in place that they’re not successful," Konopasek said. "We have checkpoints all the way through our processes that are designed to catch things at an early point."

Officials review the number of ballots counted vs. those issued.

A Republican and a Democrat observer are stationed at every polling place in the state.

And a couple of times a year each county auditor sends a list of registered voters to the secretary of state, who runs a comparison program to identify possible duplicates using name and date of birth. Then the counties research the questionable names and update their voting lists.

"Individual cases are attempted and maybe sometimes get through the system, but nothing large-scale — nothing that could affect the outcome of an election," Konopasek said.

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