King County election workers were told as early as May that if an absentee ballot came in without a matching signature on file they were required to make a concerted effort to...

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King County election workers were told as early as May that if an absentee ballot came in without a matching signature on file they were required to make a concerted effort to verify that the vote was valid.

Before a special election in May, King County election workers routinely violated state law by counting such ballots without making any attempt to verify the signatures.

In this November’s general election, the county’s absentee-ballot staff still didn’t make the effort to find matching signatures. But instead of counting the ballots automatically, they rejected them.

That has led to a controversy over the fate of 735 such ballots, which could make the difference in the gubernatorial race between Republican Dino Rossi and Democrat Christine Gregoire.

The problem was disclosed in a report last week by election supervisor Bill Huennekens to the King County Canvassing Board.

A Pierce County judge granted a restraining order last week preventing King County from counting the 735 ballots.

The judge, Stephanie Arend, refused this morning to reconsider her decision.

She did note, however, that “This is an issue that strikes a lot of people at the core level, their right to vote. I can understand and appreciate their anger. If it were my vote I’d be angry, too.”

The judge also said she has received several voice and e-mail messages following her decision, some of them she termed threatening.

Rossi won the Nov. 2 election by 261 votes, but his lead fell to just 42 after a mandatory machine recount. A hand recount of all the ballots began last week, and Rossi has picked up an additional eight votes so far, giving him an effective lead of just 50 votes.

Chris Vance, chairman of the state’s Republican Party, yesterday offered up Huennekens’ report as evidence county officials knew for months about problems with signatures that correspond to ballots that they now say were “mistakenly rejected” during the count.

King County now is trying to verify the signatures on 735 questioned ballots, including one belonging to Metropolitan King County Council Chairman Larry Phillips, a Democrat.

Several hundred have been matched so far, and Elections Director Dean Logan said he is confident the vast majority will be found valid.

Vance calls the county’s actions disingenuous, saying officials are embarking on a signature-verification process as if discovering this problem for the first time.

He cites Huennekens’ report, which also indicates county officials attempted to fix the problem in August when it mailed letters to 1,146 voters asking them to update their signatures.

Of the 735 ballots now in dispute, 101 belong to voters who did not respond to those letters.

“Before certification of the election on Nov. 17, each of these ballots was reviewed again and researched,” Huennekens wrote. “At certification of the election, these ballots were accounted for … as signature mis-comparisons.”

Vance said election officials, who are supposed to work on behalf of all citizens, are being partisan.

“Larry Phillips saw his name on a list and all of a sudden, the chairman of the County Council, a powerful Democrat, who has indirectly controlled Logan’s budget, starts yelling and screaming about this and then [election officials] begin screaming at the top of their lungs that these were valid ballots, even though they had already told the county canvassing board these were not valid and should not be counted.

“It makes me wonder how many of these people were ever properly registered to vote.”

Yesterday, Logan said that it was wrong to blame voters.

The letters did not tell voters that without the new signature their next vote wouldn’t count or they would no longer be considered validly registered.

“While responding to that letter would have cured the issue, the burden is still on King County to make sure our records are still accurate,” Logan said.

He said that before Huennekens’ instructions in May, election workers counted the ballots despite the missing signature, “because it was King County’s responsibility to have that record” and they thought the voter should not be punished.

But after the Nov. 2 election, instead of setting aside the questioned ballots and making an effort to find the signature on file, “we treated them as if they were a mismatched signature or an unsigned ballot, and they were set aside and not counted,” Logan said.

The mismatching problems arise when signatures on voter-registration forms are scanned and included on vast computer files used for signature matching.

Vance said there’s been little thought given to what might happen if the high court allows the disputed ballots to be counted.

“For now we believe these ballots in King County should be rejected. These voters were given a chance to correct the problem. There may not even be registration for some of these folks.”

Kirsten Brost, spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party, said the 735 votes were legal votes thrown out by mistake.

“King County wants to correct that mistake,” she said. “Dino Rossi and Chris Vance would rather see those votes tossed out and voters disenfranchised than risk damaging their own political futures.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or

David Postman:

Seattle Times reporter Susan Gilmore contributed to this report.