On a door of the center hang drawings found on ballots and secrecy envelopes that range from scenes of birds to social statements. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

On a door of the center hang drawings found on ballots and secrecy envelopes that range from scenes of birds to social statements. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

In this ‘voter intent’ state, even problematic ballots matter

Some have artwork or commentary. Some are not filled out correctly. But (almost) all of them count.

EVERETT — It is as predictable as the tide.

Whenever there’s a major election, some voters just won’t follow directions well.

In the August primary, for instance, 757 Snohomish County ballots were turned in too late.

Another 220 voters didn’t sign their names on the envelopes, and 68 others had signatures that appeared to be in someone else’s handwriting.

That’s more than 1,000 ballots that were returned but not counted.

In close contests, such as the Everett mayoral race in the August primary and November general election, those are the kinds of mistakes that can change outcomes. As of Tuesday night, Cassie Franklin was leading fellow Everett City Council member Judy Tuohy by 194 votes.

About 160 ballots are left to be counted, according to elections manager Garth Fell. There are another 50 ballots with signature issues that the voters must resolve before they can be processed and counted.

Franklin had 7,746 votes, or 44.7 percent, to Tuohy’s 7,552 votes, or 43.7 percent. That is a large enough margin to avoid an automatic recount.

Sam Reed, a retired state secretary of state, still wonders what difference disqualified ballots could have made in the 2004 gubernatorial election when Gov. Chris Gregoire defeated Dino Rossi. After the count, recounts of the more than 2.81 million ballots and a court challenge, Gregoire edged Rossi by 133 votes.

In Darrington as of Wednesday morning, there is just a one-vote difference in a race for a spot on the school board. Former Superintendent David Holmer leads Jennie Requa 302 to 301 after ballots in Snohomish and Skagit counties were counted Tuesday.

“It’s so important to complete it correctly and on time because your vote could make the difference in an election,” said Bob Terwilliger, a retired Snohomish County auditor.

Reed, who was a Thurston County auditor before winning statewide office, has seen all sorts of head-scratching ballots over the years.

So have local election officials.

They recall receiving primary ballots during a general election. They received filled-in sample ballots that were mistaken for the real thing. They’ve even received ballots that were four or five years old.

And sometimes, they get back bare ballots without a mark on them. Election officials speculate that those voters just want to keep their voting records pristine.

The type of ballot hasn’t guaranteed voters will follow instructions.

Terwilliger recites examples where voters would write in a candidate even though their name appeared right above the write-in line. He saw punch card ballots where all the holes were punctured and fill-in-the-bubble ballots where the ovals were circled instead.

Washington is what is known as a “voter intent” state, meaning election officials will do their best to count each vote cast if the ballots are received in a timely manner and the voter’s intent is clear.

“If we can possibly count that ballot, we are going to,” said Fell, the Snohomish County elections manager.

A case in point is the half ballot. Apparently some voters must have misunderstood they were merely supposed to pull off the perforation stub receipt at the top of the ballot. Instead, they’ll return partial ballots. The votes are then transferred onto a full ballot at election headquarters so the parts of the ballot that are completed can still be counted.

Like Reed, Washington’s current secretary of state, Kim Wyman, was Thurston County’s auditor before being elected to the statewide office. She also was that county’s elections director.

“I have always said we have some very creative voters,” she said. “You think: What in the world were they thinking?”

She recalls the woman whose handwriting appeared not just on her ballot but that of her husband and her two grown sons.

She apparently thought she was just helping them participate in the electoral process, but, in fact, was committing voter fraud. She was mortified when she received a visit from a deputy sheriff. She received a civics lesson. In the end, her ballot was counted, but the others weren’t.

“People don’t believe they check every signature,” Wyman said. “They sign others’ ballots thinking it is being helpful. That’s not OK.”

Election officials also have encountered ballots filled in in many shades of color pens, including sparkly glitter. They’ve received written messages from voters either on the ballots or envelopes, often decrying their choices of candidates and occasionally expressing appreciation or offering election workers encouragement.

From time to time, they even receive some artwork on secrecy envelopes, including a recent pastoral scene with ducks.

Some ballots are received with a few souvenirs, such as coffee stains, cigarette burns or worse.

Fell remembers one ballot arriving in a dog’s mouth, its owner — the actual voter — by its side.

Again, election officials will do whatever they can to make sure ballots are counted, Fell said.

Whether the oddly filled out or late-arriving ballots would have made a difference in Everett’s mayoral race is hard to know. Fell hears from those who wondered if write-in candidate Gary Watts changed the outcome. Write-in votes, most presumably for Watts, account for 11.7 percent of the vote.

Fell offers another perspective.

“The biggest percentage of people with an impact on the Everett race are the people who didn’t vote at all,” he said.

Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.

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