If there's one thing King County election officials don't want, it's a repeat of 2004. The governor's race between Christine Gregoire and...

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If there’s one thing King County election officials don’t want, it’s a repeat of 2004.

The governor’s race between Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi was so tight, it was decided by 133 votes. And in the aftermath, it became clear that King County had flubbed some of the basics.

The list of mistakes was long; county elections had: mishandled hundreds of ballots; discovered uncounted ballots weeks and months after the election; counted votes from people whose registration status was unconfirmed; and allowed felons without voting rights, as well as a few dead people, to cast ballots.

Oversight panels and outside auditors weighed in on the problems and made recommendations, and the county followed many of them. Observers say the office has made significant progress.

Still, with huge voter participation levels predicted for Tuesday, this election will serve as a major test of whether voters can trust the King County elections office.

Rossi’s campaign spokeswoman Jill Strait says the campaign is “reasonably confident” the county will conduct the election competently, although she complained of difficulty getting up-to-date records on voter registrations. Gregoire’s campaign expressed “complete confidence.”

“We have turned our operation upside down, and the people who are here that have been a part of that process have been totally dedicated to that goal,” said Director of Elections Sherril Huff, who replaced former Director Dean Logan when he quit. “The results are there. It isn’t just empty words.”

The scattered operation has consolidated offices in a new Renton location with tighter security and more room. Ballot accountability has improved, as has training and recruiting, she said.

The county has increased the division’s annual budget from $13 million to $20 million, not including $1.7 million spent on the new elections office. The office has hired 19 more full-time employees for a total of 61. The only major recommendations from oversight committees not put into place are turning the election director’s job into an elected office, which voters will decide Tuesday, and converting to all-mail voting, now expected in spring.

Overall, the office has been commended for its work in the past four years.

“Progress has been considerable. I’m saying that as someone who was quite critical four years ago,” said King County Councilmember Bob Ferguson, D-Seattle, who called the 2004 results “public and embarrassing.”

“But this will obviously be the ultimate test, right? The last four years of reform have frankly all built up to this Election Day.”

The state Republican Party examined the county’s voter rolls and recently raised questions over 1,000 registrations after finding discrepancies between the state and the county rolls and registrations with the same name and address.

Huff says the party was looking at outdated data and election officials had already reviewed most of the possible duplications, some of which belonged to fathers and sons at the same address.

Luke Esser, the state GOP chairman, said those questionable registrations were only caught because his party brought them to the county’s attention. Huff said her office would have found them anyway.

Finding solutions

These are the problems King County elections faced in 2004 and how officials say they have dealt with them:

The number of people who voted did not match the number of ballots counted.

The elections office did not have a firm grasp of the number of voters who voted and the number of ballots cast. There was a discrepancy of nearly 4,000 ballots.

The elections division has since improved reconciliation procedures for keeping track of ballots and hired quality-assurance staff. Officials say they have implemented best practices from Fortune 500 companies. The county has also bought ballot-counting equipment that electronically counts ballots, sorts them based on legislative districts and weighs them to check whether envelopes are empty.

With the new procedures in use, there was a discrepancy of four ballots in the August primary.

Ballots were lost.

A batch of more than 150 absentee ballots was misplaced and found weeks after the election. Many more absentee ballots were found, uncounted, months after the election, still in their ballot envelopes.

Officials say they have improved ballot tracking. Ballot envelopes have been redesigned since 2004 with holes in them, so workers can easily see whether ballots are still inside. The holes also allow workers to loop plastic ties through stacks of empty envelopes to ensure they have all been emptied.

Votes from provisional ballots were counted before the voter’s status was checked.

Poll voters are given provisional ballots if their voting status is in question. The ballots are supposed to be counted after the voter’s status has been verified. In 2004, poll workers incorrectly fed hundreds of provisional ballot votes into vote-counting machines before the department checked voting statuses.

The office has since changed the color and design of provisional ballots so they cannot be read by vote-counting machines at the polls.

Felons voted who did not have the right to vote.

Convicted felons can vote in Washington state after they serve their sentence and pay their financial obligations. After the 2004 election, King County prosecutors challenged more than 600 registrations for felons whose voting rights had not been restored.

In 2006, the Secretary of State’s elections office took over management of the voter-registration rolls, previously run by the counties. The state now runs names against the Department of Corrections and court databases to check whether felons have met the requirements to vote. The state does not have data on felons between 1940 and 1980, so felons who served in that time period could potentially vote even if their voting rights have not been restored.

Dead people cast ballots.

A handful of ballots were cast in dead people’s names in 2004 in King County. The state elections office now checks the voter rolls against the Social Security death index monthly to remove the names of people who have died. In the last two years, 91,000 deceased voters were removed from the state voter rolls, according to the state elections office. County staff also check obituaries for recent deaths.

Signatures for registered absentee voters were not in the elections database.

More than 500 absentee ballots were initially rejected — including that of King County Councilmember Larry Phillips — for not having a signature on file with the elections office.

County officials say that now, when staff members see an absentee ballot returned from a voter without a signature on file, they try to contact the voter with a letter and two phone calls. The number of ballot rejections due to missing database signatures has fallen each year, from 25 in the November 2007 election to 10 in this year’s August primary.

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com