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Wednesday, September 13, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Many in Snohomish County are missing a step on ballot

Times Snohomish County bureau

Incorrectly filled-out ballots for this month's primary are being turned away at higher numbers in Snohomish County than elsewhere across the state.

In a sampling of 250 ballots Monday, about 20 percent of voters failed to select Republican or Democrat before making partisan choices. Under state law, unless a party is clearly chosen at the top of the ballot, the votes for partisan races are invalid.

Nonpartisan votes on the flip side of the ballot are counted regardless.

Across the state, ballot samplings in other counties are showing about a 10 percent to 12 percent error margin, according to the Washington Secretary of State's Office. In King County, incorrectly marked ballots have amounted to about 5 percent of 200 sampled ballots.

Why the difference in Snohomish County? For the first time, about 40 percent more voters are using mail-in ballots, said county elections manager Carolyn Diepenbrock.

Those who have frequented the polls in the past may not understand the extra step needed for a paper ballot, she said. Until this spring's primary, poll voters selected party choices on electronic voting machines. The machines were programmed to prevent partisan choices until a party was first selected.

Snohomish County switched to all-mail balloting in January. With all the county's registered voters receiving ballots, it's also possible more people are voting in the primary than would have if they had to go to the polls.

"It's possible they just aren't aware of the 'pick-a-party' requirements," Diepenbrock said, adding that the format has been confusing since its start in 2004. During that election, 13 percent of all Snohomish County partisan ballots were invalid because voters had failed to make a party choice.

Still, the large number has Secretary of State Sam Reed "concerned."

"The Snohomish situation appears to be worse than the others, but still, it's bad in the other counties as well," said Reed, who plans to return to the Legislature in 2007 to argue that the party check box be eliminated.

For the major parties, the issue has been frustrating but not surprising. Snohomish County GOP Chairman Steve Neighbors said his office tried to alert faithful Republicans to the instructions for filling out the paper ballots before they were mailed.

"It's the first time for an all-mail ballot, and there are a lot of people who for the first time are voting in a primary," he said. "We kind of expected this issue. It's going to take time to educate people."

Snohomish County's elections office will sample more ballots again in coming days, Diepenbrock said, adding that she expects the number to drop.

"By then, more people will have heard of the issue with the ballot, and probably taken more time to process the instructions," she said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Sharon Pian Chan contributed to this report. Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or cschwarzen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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