A new mystery has emerged in King County's vote recount. Earlier this week, county officials announced 573 ballots had been improperly disqualified because election workers didn't...

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King County election officials will enter a locked “cage” in a warehouse this morning to look for a plastic mail tray they believe contains up to 162 misplaced absentee ballots.

Elections Director Dean Logan said the ballots, like 573 other ballots that were improperly rejected, were set aside because workers couldn’t find voter signatures that corresponded to them.

But unlike the other ballots, these apparently were left behind and forgotten. The original 573 votes were mistakenly identified as having mismatched signatures and then disqualified.

If the ballots are found, it means King County could count up to 735 ballots that have not been counted in the two previous tallies. That could give a significant advantage to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Christine Gregoire in a county where she holds a strong lead over Republican Dino Rossi.

Logan said election workers will enter the warehouse cage at 9:30 a.m., with Republican and Democratic observers present.

“We need to get those [ballots] and they need to be included in being done,” Logan said. The decision will be up to the county canvassing board, of which Logan is a member.

He called an emergency meeting with his staff last night after The Seattle Times asked election workers to check computer files on five absentee voters who were not on the original list of 573 rejected ballots.

Records indicated there was no signature on file for those voters — part of the group of 162 whose ballots will be searched for today — and their votes had not been counted.

Logan said at the time that he thought the computer records were in error and that a search for the ballot envelopes would show the votes had been counted. But when election officials looked for the envelopes last night, Logan said, “They were not where they were expected to be.” He said he is “fairly certain” they were left behind in the locked cage.

The five voters’ last names all began with the letters A or B.

The list of 573 disqualified voters contains no one with a last name starting with A or B, and only two starting with C. Election observers had been wondering what happened to the A’s and B’s.

The 573 ballots are already at the center of controversy in the governor’s race recount. King County officials Wednesday moved to begin verifying and counting those votes, but Republicans said yesterday they would go to court to stop the King County recount.

Logan said last night he would order workers not to separate the 573 ballots from their envelopes — a step in the counting process — pending a hearing on the suit.

Before searching last night for the A’s and B’s, Logan said county workers had focused only on the 573 ballots. He said “we knew as fact” those voters were improperly disenfranchised.

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