Danny Westneat / Times staff columnist
Counter for a day finds few bugs in recount process
Lindsay McClellan is sitting across from me, sifting through a 4-inch stack of ballots, when she says the words that could change the course of state history:
"We've got a smudge."
I've been hired to count votes in the governor's race. We are sitting at a cramped folding table under fluorescent lights, one of 80 three-person teams that are counting, one at a time, King County's 898,574 votes.
All activity at our table stops instantly. The glowering observers from the political parties loom over us like vultures.
For intrigue in this tedious work, nothing tops a "smudge." It's the lingo for those rare ballots on which voters have marked more than one oval in the governor's race.
They are the gray zone, the murky territory of what is believed to be the tightest statewide election in U.S. history.
They are our hanging chad.
McClellan, the Republican-appointed counter, squints at the ballot. The oval for Republican Dino Rossi is filled by a black pen. But there also is a black dot in the oval for the Democrat, Christine Gregoire.
She peers closer. The mark is odd, not quite the same shade as the black pen. Is it a flaw in the paper? A blemish left by the vote-counting machine? What in the world is it?
Suddenly she sits back and laughs.
"It's a squashed bug!"
And so it is. Probably a gnat or no-see-um who died around Nov. 2, dried to the ballot and has been threatening to unhinge the governor's race ever since.
We tally the vote for Rossi, finding that the voter probably squashed the bug in Gregoire's oval not with intent to vote for Gregoire but with intent to kill the bug.
And so it goes in this extraordinary recount, the largest manual examination of election ballots ever attempted.
King County hired me to count votes for one day. I told them upfront who I was and that I would write about the experience.
I was treated like any other employee. I had to join the Teamsters union, the bargaining unit for King County elections workers (and, for you conspiracy theorists to chew on, a union that supports mostly Democratic candidates). I signed a form allowing the Teamsters to deduct 1.3 percent of my $12.70 hourly wage.
Last week I was trained in vote-counting procedures for nearly two hours.
Thursday, I arrived at 7:45 a.m. along with nearly 300 others at the county's manual-recount facility, an office building next to Boeing Field.
The vote-counting room had the feel of a makeshift casino. There were no clocks to give a sense of the passage of time. It felt like we were sitting at blackjack tables, only our task was to sort and count ballots from boxes delivered by runners.
We were forbidden to get up without permission, or to reseal the boxes without a county employee present. At all times, we were scrutinized by as many as six grim-faced observers.
With all the recent news about uncounted votes and ballots being found in the side pockets of precinct machines, I expected a slipshod operation.
I was completely wrong. I am now convinced that in the counting of votes, humans are unquestionably superior to machines.
My team of three sorted and counted 5,544 votes during a nine-hour shift. We agreed unanimously — the Republican, the Democrat and I, the county worker — about who should get every one of those votes.
Each ballot was counted by the Republican appointee: McClellan, 21, a recent University of Washington grad who applied to be the Rossi family nanny and got this job because her brother-in-law works for the campaign.
Then the same stacks were counted by the Democratic appointee: John Reese, 53, a Seattle pro-Palestinian activist who said he was "way left of liberal — I guess I'd call myself a radical."
They kept their counts secret and gave them to me. If the numbers matched, we reported the results and resealed the box. If they differed, we started over. If the second counts still didn't agree, we were instructed to return the box to be given to a new team.
The system of checks and double-checks didn't stop there. If our tallies for a precinct varied by even one vote from the machine recount, another team would later reopen the box and count the entire precinct by hand again.
"I'm so impressed with this system," McClellan said. "It's near impossible to corrupt, and it seems much more sensitive than a machine count. All the criticisms I hear about what we're doing are wrong."
Reese agreed. "I don't have much faith in the American political system, but I have faith in what we're doing here," he said. "I would put people counting over machine counting any time."
Take the ballot with the squashed bug. If the bug was there on Nov. 2, it's possible the optical-scanning machine did not count that vote, assuming more than one oval was blacked out. By hand inspection, we found it to be an obvious vote for Rossi.
You can see this effect in the hand recount statewide. As of yesterday, teams like mine in 38 of the state's 39 counties had added 1,130 votes to the two governor candidates' totals, almost always by counting votes that were obvious to the human eye but which the machines had passed over.
In a race separated by a few dozen votes out of 2.9 million, these are the kinds of judgments that could dictate who is governor. It's comforting to me that they are now being made by human beings.
I can't vouch for the county canvassing boards, which are made up of partisan government officials.
But political strife almost is nonexistent on the recount teams. Even when it rears up, it doesn't affect the final tally. Two counters were dismissed earlier in the week when they got into a shouting match, and their work was redone by others.
The counters at the table next to mine stood out because they were in constant disagreement, and repeatedly had to return boxes of votes to be counted by a new team.
There are serious questions being raised about the ballot-tracking and signature-checking procedures in King County. The discovery of hundreds of ballots that were apparently wrongly rejected back on Election Day has undermined the county's credibility.
But those critics who are blasting the manual recount on the face of it don't know what they're talking about. Such as former Gov. Dan Evans, a Rossi backer who, just as the recount was starting, said this:
"Can you imagine 300 newly hired, ill-trained, overworked people counting by hand with people looking over their shoulders and getting accurate counts? It's ludicrous."
I can do more than imagine it, governor. I saw it with my own eyes.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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