There’s no accounting for the ‘human factor’


Herald Writer

When it comes to voting problems, punch cards and chads aren’t the only culprits.

In Washington, mishaps in the recent election ranged from poorly designed ballots in Whatcom County to a Snohomish County election worker who erased nearly 200 votes with the press of a button.

The recount for the U.S. Senate and secretary of state race in Washington revealed the glitches that can afflict the voting process.

"There is no bulletproof system," said Snohomish County elections supervisor Scott Konopasek. "It’s the human factor."

In Whatcom County, that factor may have resulted in an unusually high number of blank ballots for the Senate race.

The number of people who cast no vote soared from 608 in the presidential race to over 3,000 in the Senate race there. That gave the county nearly the highest rejection rate of any county for that race at 4.5 percent, second only to tiny Skamania County.

Whatcom County elections supervisor Pete Griffin feared voter inattention, combined with the ballot design, was to blame. The Senate race was located in the ballot guide at the bottom of the same page as the presidential race. Unlike the presidential contest, it didn’t have a bold title over the top identifying it.

That, Griffin said, may have caused people to pass over the Senate.

"If this had had a bold header, I have a hunch we wouldn’t have had a dropoff there, because I think some people voted for president and instantly turned their page," he said.

However, Gene Goldsmith, chairman of the county’s Republican Party, said he doubted there was a design problem. Even more people failed to cast votes in the race for the 2nd Congressional District, which wasn’t on the same page, he noted.

Election officials in Yakima and Franklin counties, meanwhile, are scratching their heads over a similar situation.

An unusually large number of voters there — between 4.5 and 4.7 percent — didn’t have votes counted for president. That’s higher than all other counties, and nearly twice the rejection rate for the Senate race in those two counties. It’s unusual for the voting to increase from president to the next race. Only Wahkiakum County had a similar pattern this year, and there it changed less than 0.5 percent.

Officials at the secretary of state’s office wonder if the anomaly may be linked to the ballot design. Yakima and Franklin counties use similar ballots, and are the only ones in the state using a modified punch-card system that works much like a hand-held hole puncher.

"What we think is the layout of their ballot … may have caused people to think they needed to click two holes into the card (for president)," said David Elliott, the secretary’s assistant director of elections.

Officials in both counties, however, said their computers were programmed to overlook such accidents. They couldn’t offer an explanation for the unusual trend.

"We’re going to look again and see if there’s a better way to get this done," said Yakima County Auditor Doug Cochran.

Other vote puzzles were easier to decipher.

In Snohomish County, an additional 262 ballots appeared during the recount. Nearly 200 of those came from an election worker who accidentally hit the wrong button on a ballot-counting machine during the first count, erasing the results, Konopasek said.

The remaining extra ballots were probably accidentally put in the wrong pile during initial vote processing, he said.

Douglas County suffered a similar snafu. The central Washington County had the highest rate of change from the first count to the recount of any county. That’s because someone accidentally ran more than 700 write-in ballots through the counting machines twice during the first tally, said county auditor Thad Duvall.

"This really is a human process we’re involved in," he said.

Optical scanners also proved fallible.

Cowlitz County officials are still scratching their heads over how one machine got out of adjustment and failed to count roughly 150 votes for the Senate.

A technician with the company that sold them the machine, Nebraska-based Election Systems and Software, found that ballots were entering the machine at the wrong angle. That caused the scanner to misread votes for the Senate race, which was near the top of the ballot, election supervisor Libby Nieland said.

She was unsure how the problem developed after the machine passed earlier accuracy tests.

"We’re in the process of playing detective," she said. "Fortunately it (the Senate race) was decided by more votes."

In Skamania County, the recount registered nearly twice as many overvotes for the Senate, from 58 in the first count up to 112. The change probably stemmed from a faulty sensor in the optical scanner that detected an additional vote where there wasn’t one, said election deputy David O’Brien.

"You kind of swallow hard and say, ‘Man, what happened here?’ It kind of put us in an uncomfortable position," he said.

At the time, O’Brien said the secretary of state’s office advised them to submit those results, and do another recount if someone requested it. So far no one has.

Though election officials expressed chagrin at the problems, they chalked them up largely as minor mishaps.

Rep. Dave Schmidt, R-Bothell, said the tiny change in the results after the recount shows Washington’s system works well. In the Senate race, the number of votes going to the three candidates changed by 2,014 out of more than 2.4 million, a 0.08 percent change.

"It’s a reflection of how good our system is," said Schmidt, who sits on a state board that trains and certifies election officials.

Retiring Secretary of State Ralph Munro said he was pleased with the overall performance of the recount. But he expected that with closer scutiny of election systems, some poorer Washington counties might be found lacking the resources they need to deal with close and contentious votes.

"The standards got much tighter all of a sudden. Am I worried about the election system in the state of Washington? No," he said. "But I think we have some areas of concern."

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