Sunday, November 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Election 2006

Ballot-bag problems may slow counting of 8th District votes

Seattle Times staff reporter

U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert padded his narrow lead over Democrat Darcy Burner on Saturday, but questions about a large batch of uncounted absentee ballots will likely prolong the contentious 8th District congressional race.

King County Elections staff said about 100 bags — containing up to 20,000 absentee ballots that had been dropped off at polling sites on Election Day — remain uncounted because of an array of problems caused by the bags' being overstuffed.

Jim Buck, King County's interim elections director, acknowledged that the problems — including broken zippers and unclosed bag seals — could potentially have allowed ballots to be cast after voting ended.

But Buck said the bags had a clear chain of custody until they reached the counting-room floor, and were never outside the control of poll workers. At a county elections canvassing-board meeting on Tuesday, Buck will recommend that the ballots be accepted and opened for verification and processing.

"I think poll workers who take an oath had these under their control all the way through election night," Buck said. "I don't think there is any question that they were timely received."

Because the ballots are uncounted, it was unclear how the votes would affect the closely watched race.

The 8th District, which covers eastern King and Pierce counties, has never sent a Democrat to Congress. Burner hoped to ride the Democrats' national wave to an upset.

But in votes counted in King County on Saturday, Reichert extended his lead by 419 votes, to 3,514 total votes. It was the first batch of ballots in which Burner has lost in King County. Pierce County, which has heavily favored Reichert, resumes counting on Monday.

Burner, reached at home, was encouraged that there were more votes in King County left to count. "If you were going to have a Democrat win this district ... this would be the way it would play out," she said.

Mike Britt, Reichert's campaign manager, said the GOP would monitor the Tuesday canvassing-board meeting. Republicans have castigated King County elections and claimed that vote-processing gaffes in 2004 cost GOP candidate Dino Rossi the governor's mansion.

But Britt said the Reichert campaign assumed there was a large chunk of ballots left to count in King County, and was confident in victory.

"I'm not going to jump to any conclusions until I hear from them on Tuesday," Britt said.

The troublesome bags are blue, with a handle that allows a red seal to be inserted after poll sites close. They were overstuffed because an unusually large number of absentee ballots were dropped off at polling sites, said Buck, the elections manager.

As a result, some of the bags were too bloated to seal. The zippers on other bags burst like a sausage casing.

Elections staff first mentioned the problem during a canvassing-board meeting on Thursday, saying that in addition to the overstuffed bags, some of the numbered seals had "discrepancies" from their paperwork.

Natasha Jones, a spokeswoman for King County Elections, said that poll workers may have made clerical errors when logging the seal numbers on tracking slips inserted into a sleeve on the bags. She said she did not know how many bags had discrepancies.

Because the bags are unopened, it is unclear how many ballots they contain. Jones said a well-stuffed bag held about 200. If so, the bags would hold about 5 percent of the nearly 384,000 mail-in ballots received thus far.

Buck said voters should not be alarmed by the problems.

"The question is not whether it is a valid ballot, because we will be doing signature verification, but whether it came in on election night," he said. "All these bags came back on election night and were locked up in the cages."

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or

District 8 vote tally
Partial results, as of Saturday night:
Candidate Votes Pct.
Darcy Burner (D) 95,195 49.09%
Dave Reichert (R) 98,709 50.90%

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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