Long after it seemed there couldn't be any more surprises in the November governor's election, King County officials acknowledged yesterday...

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Long after it seemed there couldn’t be any more surprises in the November governor’s election, King County officials acknowledged yesterday they have found more uncounted ballots.

Over the past week, election workers have found 87 valid absentee ballots that had been left in their envelopes and not counted through three tallies of the closest statewide race in Washington history. The ballots were in archival boxes and were found when election workers were looking for something else.

The first of the ballots were found March 24, but officials did not publicly acknowledge the problem until a reporter asked them about it yesterday. After the initial discovery, Election Director Dean Logan ordered a search through more than a half-million absentee envelopes to look for other ballots that might not have been counted.

The discovery comes as lawyers for the state’s political parties argue in court over whether Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire’s election was legitimate.

Gregoire defeated Republican Dino Rossi by 129 votes after a hand recount overturned the results of two machine counts that Rossi had won.

Logan said yesterday he had been waiting to release the information until after completion of the search, expected today.

Next step in election lawsuit

Chelan County Superior Court Judge John Bridges will hold a scheduling conference next week in the Republican lawsuit to overturn the November election. During the session, at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in Wenatchee, the judge is expected to set dates for hearings on remaining pre-trial motions. He could also set a trial date.

“Otherwise, experience has shown that the story will indicate a number, and a follow-up story will claim the county was incomplete in its process and disclosure,” he said in an e-mail. “The public interest is best served by assuring an open, thorough and complete accounting. That will be done.”

But for the first time since the election, Logan used tough language to describe his employees’ performance, and he announced at least a temporary personnel shakeup. The staff that handles absentee ballots is being reassigned to other duties pending an investigation, he said.

“I am greatly concerned with what appears to be repeated instances of poor judgment and incomplete processing at our Mail Ballot Operations Facility,” Logan said. “I am taking immediate and appropriate action in that regard.”

Logan and his spokeswoman, Bobbie Egan, would not say how many ballots had been found. But after inquiries from The Seattle Times, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Don Porter e-mailed lawyers for the Democratic and Republican parties, telling them about the latest batch of found ballots.

The ballots were still sealed inside their original envelopes. Porter said he had told officials not to open the envelopes or count the ballots unless ordered to do so by a court.

It wasn’t immediately clear how the discovery might affect the Republican Party’s legal challenge to Gregoire’s election.

Because King County voters generally favored Gregoire, the failure to count the ballots could have cost her votes. It isn’t known, however, which precincts the votes were from.

The discovery is likely to bolster a key Republican claim: that there were so many irregularities in the election that the true winner can’t be determined. Republicans have cited many errors by election workers and have focused on King County, where batches of uncounted and improperly rejected ballots had been discovered earlier.

Secretary of State Sam Reed, the state’s chief election official, was surprised by news of the most-recently found ballots.

“Oh my gosh,” he said.

Reed said the news confirmed his belief that problems in the King County elections division are “very deep and very significant.” Reed is a Republican who has found himself a target of criticism from his own party members for not doing more to help Rossi.

“The number of mistakes, the seriousness of mistakes and the way they have gone unreported and allowed to sit there for awhile all adds up to this very clear indication that they have some fundamental problems with the people who are working there in lower levels and mid-echelon levels, and they are going to have to deal with that,” Reed said.

Reed said he was disappointed that King County kept the discovery quiet for more than a week. He said his office has “encouraged” King County to be more open about its problems.

County election workers initially discovered 48 uncounted ballots March 24. They were going through boxes of what they thought were empty envelopes once containing ballots that had been counted.

That work was in response to a Democratic Party request for information about alleged felon voters. Republican attorneys had submitted a list of more than 900 felons they claimed voted illegally in King County, and Democrats wanted a copy of every absentee envelope signed by someone on the list.

Logan was informed of the discovery that day and ordered a search of boxes containing 564,000 absentee-ballot envelopes and 28,000 provisional-ballot envelopes, officials said.

That search had turned up an additional 39 ballots through yesterday.

The effect of the discovery on the election lawsuit Rossi filed depends largely on what the judge rules Republicans will need to prove in court.

“I just don’t expect it to be much more than an example of problems,” Reed said. “I’m not expecting these ballots to be counted or anything.”

State Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance blasted county officials for not informing the public of the discovery and for not bringing in Republican and Democratic observers to watch workers go through ballots.

“It’s unbelievable. You couldn’t make this up if you tried,” Vance said.

“It’s like dealing with the old Soviet government,” he said. “They keep secrets. The minute they found that they had a problem with this, they should have notified us, notified the Democrats, notified the secretary of state, everybody.”

Democratic Party attorney Jenny Durkan said Democrats have been asking King County to look for ballots mistakenly left uncounted.

“All along we’ve believed there were a significant number of ballots that should have been counted in King County and weren’t,” Durkan said.

She said she doesn’t think the newly discovered ballots can be counted and added to the official tally for the Nov. 2 election. But, Durkan said, “I fully expect the court in the election contest will have to look at them” in deciding the rightful winner of the election.

“Frankly, it’s a shame that a better job wasn’t done,” Durkan said. “But given the magnitude of this election and the pressures put on officials … those kind of errors are going to happen in every single election.”

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

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or dpostman@seattletimes.com