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Wednesday, October 2, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New Rules For Absentee Ballots -- Votes May Not Be Tallied Before Election Day

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Secretary of State Ralph Munro has issued emergency rules that he says will prevent a repeat of the legal confusion that delayed counting of more than 100,000 absentee ballots primary election night.

For the November election, the rules should allow all counties but Pierce to revert to their traditional methods of tabulating absentees returned before election day, said Munro spokesman David Brine.

"For us, for this year, it essentially sanctions what we've been doing," said King County elections superintendent Bob Bruce.

Shawn Newman, attorney for the group whose lawsuit against Pierce County led to the primary-election counting delay, expressed support for the rules. But in legal papers filed Monday, Pierce County deputy prosecutor Roger Miener said the regulations "create as many problems as they purport to solve."

The state Supreme Court will decide the dispute.

Pierce County uses an electronic optical-scan voting system, and in past elections has run returned absentee ballots through reading machines - without announcing results - up to 10 days before election day.

That violates a state law prohibiting "tabulation" of ballots before the polls close, Citizens for Leaders with Ethics and Accountability Now (CLEAN), the group Newman represents, charged in a lawsuit. At the group's request, Supreme Court Justice Charles Smith issued an order Sept. 13 that prompted Pierce County to halt processing of returned absentees.

Resulting confusion caused other counties to delay the counting of absentee ballots. In King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, an estimated 127,000 absentee ballots that would have been counted election night weren't tabulated until later.

Munro's new rules allow elections officials to open absentee-ballot envelopes, check signatures, and conduct other "initial processing" up to 10 days before Election Day. But they say officials can't feed ballots through counting machines until Election Day.

In a brief filed with the state Supreme Court - which retains jurisdiction over the CLEAN-Pierce County dispute - deputy prosecutor Miener said the rules usurp the discretion state law gives local elections officials.

Pierce County contends it lacks the staff and equipment to produce timely election results if it must hold off on feeding absentee ballots into counting machines until Election Day.

The rules take effect immediately and apply only to the Nov. 5 election.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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