Last november's historically close gubernatorial race sparked recounts and lawsuits, focusing unprecedented attention on election departments...

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LAST November’s historically close gubernatorial race sparked recounts and lawsuits, focusing unprecedented attention on election departments throughout Washington state. Most closely scrutinized was King County’s election division, where the discovery of serious flaws left many citizens questioning the integrity of our election process.

This sobering reality has guided the work of the King County Independent Task Force on Elections — a diverse, nonpartisan and truly independent group of volunteers. We anchored all our deliberations on the powerful ideal that every vote does indeed count. This ideal, we believe, is at the heart of our democracy, and must be restored and sustained for the people of King County and all citizens of the state.

Although the 2004 elections have created a significant crisis in public trust, they are truly symptoms of problems that have evolved over many years. Given the number and chronic nature of the problems revealed during the past four years, the task force’s key finding is that there has been a failure of leadership and a breakdown in accountability. Despite significant leadership changes and the current efforts to improve the organization, King County’s culture and structure continue to prevent effective and rigorous compliance with elections laws, policies and procedures.

Responsibility and public accountability for the elections process ultimately reside in the office of the King County executive. Real and significant change in the county’s organizational culture requires a fully engaged and focused leadership that starts with the King County executive.

The task force has found that the leader of the Records, Elections and Licensing Services Division cannot alone make the kinds of changes that are critical to restoring public trust and confidence in our elections system. We believe these changes can be accomplished only if spearheaded by an independent, external “turnaround” team that reports directly and is accountable to the King County executive. Throughout the time that the turnaround team is in place, the executive and the County Council must have the fortitude and courage to ensure that organizational transformation will be supported and achieved.

The most compelling reasons for recommending the turnaround team are the crisis in public confidence in the elections system, and the variety of disturbing organizational issues revealed by our survey of elections employees. King County and its citizens cannot afford to wait for a year, or two or three, to resolve the major leadership problems that confront the elections office. Granting an external, independent turnaround team the responsibility and authority to improve the elections office is an essential, immediate step in addressing this crisis.

Longer term, the task force believes a separately elected official with primary responsibility for elections will increase accountability to citizens. The task force acknowledges that electing a leader of elections does not guarantee an effective leader who can establish a more-credible and independent elections system. However, the public is demanding more accountability in the elections process and so we believe the proposal is worthy of public discussion and debate. However, regardless of the debate on the elected official, that should not detract from the need of the executive and the turnaround team to make any necessary changes.

The two most important policy reforms that King County should enact to ensure fair and equitable elections are: Institute vote-by-mail and regional voting centers in 2006; and during recounts, place two elections observers at or adjacent to counting stations.

The state Legislature bears some of the responsibility for the chaos and layers of complexity that needlessly undermine our elections system. Therefore, the task force strongly recommends that the King County executive and council allocate resources to champion the following reforms in the way Washington state conducts elections:

• Change the date of the primary election to the first Tuesday of June;

• Reduce from six to four the number of elections held in Washington state during the calendar year;

• Automatically restore voting rights to former felons upon their release from prison;

• When a recount is necessary, conduct only one and require that it be manual;

• Require that state and county elections officials receive all ballots by 8 o’clock on election night.

As we began, none of us completely appreciated the enormity of the challenge. After devoting hundreds of hours to this work, we deeply appreciate what a solemn public trust it is to guarantee and protect the most powerful of all civic rights, the right to vote.

These changes may require new laws or even changes to the state’s constitution. They will, however, reduce costs, enhance fairness and restore public trust in the election process. And most importantly, they will ensure that the solution works over the long term, no matter who is in charge and no matter which party is in power.

While no election or election system can ever achieve total perfection, perfection should always be the goal, and we should strive for nothing less. The public’s trust is at stake. It is now up to King County to determine what happens next.

Cheryl Scott, left, ex-CEO of Group Health, is chairwoman, and Suzanne Sinclair, right, Island County auditor, is vice chairwoman of the King County Independent Task Force on Elections, which yesterday concluded work on the recommendations outlined above.