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Saturday, February 9, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Thousands of voters' ballots tossed out

Seattle Times staff reporter

Nearly one in four King County voters who mailed in their ballots did not identify themselves as Democrat or Republican, nullifying their votes in the presidential primary.

The elections office Friday called it a combination of protest and error. Some voters do not want to publicly declare a political party, even though their vote remains secret. Other voters might not know their votes will not be counted unless they choose a party.

"It's clear that voters have strong feelings about having to take an oath," said Bobbie Egan, spokeswoman for King County Elections.

On the King County absentee-ballot envelope, voters must check off a box next to the Democratic or Republican oath and sign the envelope. The oath declares that the voter is a member of that party who will not participate in the nomination process for any other political party this year.

As of Thursday, King County had received 70,167 ballots for the Feb. 19 primary, and a party had not been checked off on as many as 17,500 envelopes. In Snohomish County, about 30 percent of the 60,000 ballots already mailed in will not be counted because of the failure to note a party affiliation.

For Democrats, even ballots filled out correctly will serve as more of an opinion poll. Delegates for the national convention will be apportioned based on the results of today's caucuses, not the primary.

Republicans will choose roughly half the delegates based on the primary, with the rest based on today's caucus results.

This is the first presidential primary in which Washington voters must declare themselves Republican or Democrat.

The changes in this election may also feel new to voters because the Legislature canceled the 2004 presidential primary. In the 1996 and 2000 elections, voters had a third option — to vote unaffiliated. The unaffiliated votes were counted by election offices, but the results were ignored by both parties. The Legislature has eliminated that choice.

Which party voters choose in this election becomes part of the public record and that information will be provided to both parties. Although the information will be retained on each voter's registration record for only 60 days, it will be reproduced in other lists that remain public, according to John Pearson, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office. The signed oaths also must be kept for 22 months, according to federal law.

Kitsap County, worried that voters were confused, is allowing them to make changes to their ballot at the elections office. Voters who have already mailed their ballots in King and Snohomish counties cannot make any changes.

In some areas, the ballot also contains local nonpartisan issues, such as school and fire-district measures. Voters do not need to designate a political party for their votes to be counted in those elections.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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