Security was so lax in King County's contested 2004 election that someone could have gained access to half a million absentee ballots by...

Security was so lax in King County’s contested 2004 election that someone could have gained access to half a million absentee ballots by climbing over the gate of a poorly designed cage or by breaking in through a skylight.

Election officials said yesterday they have begun to fix those and other security shortcomings revealed by a four-month, $319,000 audit of the county’s troubled elections office.

Ernie Hawkins, who led the audit by the Houston-based Election Center, and Strategica, an Issaquah-based company, outlined the major findings yesterday to the Metropolitan King County Council.

When Councilman Bob Ferguson asked if he had seen worse security anywhere else, Hawkins said, no, he had not. “I haven’t seen every election facility in the country,” he added.

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Ferguson later said in a prepared statement, “This kind of straight talk is exactly why the elections audit is so valuable. We can now identify problems and move quickly to correct them.”

County Executive Ron Sims said he was pleased by the “overall positive tenor of the report” and said he supported the auditors’ recommendations to correct what he called “technical deficiencies.”

Auditors found no evidence of fraud in what was the closest governor’s race in state history, Hawkins said. County election officials also have made “significant and noteworthy progress” in improving flaws that allowed invalid ballots to be counted and left valid ballots uncounted, Hawkins said.

“Give them more time to do all the things that have been set out,” said audit-team member Ingrid Gonzales, former elections chief for San Bernardino County, Calif. “They are working on them. They have listened.”

Some of the worst security problems found by the auditors were at the county’s Mail Ballot Operations Satellite in South Seattle, which lacked video surveillance, 24-hour-a-day guards and other safeguards.

Elections Director Dean Logan said the hole in the absentee-ballot cage has been closed, and officials plan to make the skylight burglarproof. Surveillance cameras at the mail-ballot satellite office, as well as at election headquarters, recently were added.

Logan said he was somewhat surprised by the level of security recommended by the auditors. “A lot of the things they’re recommending in security are things you’re not going to see in many places here in the state of Washington,” he said.

Logan called the audit “thorough and constructive” and said it echoed much of his office’s conclusions about what needs to be done to improve elections. He said he agreed with the recommendation that election administration and ballot handling be consolidated from three buildings into one.

Consolidating election operations would reduce errors and make it easier to maintain security, the auditors reported. The County Council in July rejected Sims’ proposed $23 million election center in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, calling for study of more options.

The auditors also said:

• The county lacks “a competent corps” of managers because three of the six managers and supervisors hired since 2002 have quit or been fired or demoted.

• More Chinese-speaking poll workers must be hired, and voting equipment for disabled voters must be installed to meet federal requirements.

• Tight timelines between primary and general elections and the limited time available for the certification of results “invite rushed, error-prone work.”

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com