Inside the Recount

A ballot counter on the Democratic side matches wits with wily Republicans and survives with this news: The hand recount of the gubernatorial election wasn't pretty, but it was squeaky clean.

Democrat Christine Gregoire was elected governor by 129 votes last month in the third tabulation of one of the closest elections in U.S. history. While many are skeptical about the outcome, I am not among them. I was there at the historic moment the last ballots were tallied. In fact, I personally counted those and more than 10,000 of the 900,000 other ballots cast in King County. Over two weeks, as a temporary county employee and Democratic Party designee, I also learned a thing or two about partisan holy war—and human nature. The Re-Recount of 2004 wasn't pretty, but the system worked as designed. The hand recount gave us the true winner: the voters.

My involvement began with an e-mail. "Help with the King County recount for governor's race and get paid!" said a message on Dec. 4 from the Backbone Campaign. The Backbone Campaign is a group of local artists and activists whose mission is to encourage citizens and elected officials to stand up for progressive values. I called the King County Democratic Party and enlisted as one of 80 party designees in the hand recount of ballots. The Republicans provided their own 80 designees. It would be the third and presumably final tally of 2.8 million ballots statewide. Republican Dino Rossi won the first machine count by 261 votes and a recount by machine by 42 votes. As a computer professional, I understand the fallibility of automated systems better than most. It was clear to me that the only way to accurately determine the winner in such a tight election was by a hand recount.

So I became a Democratic partisan, despite the fact that I have never been a true believer in the Democrats or in their candidate for governor. Among Democrats, my pick would have been retired Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge, who dropped out of the race early last year for health reasons. In the 2000 presidential election, I voted for Ralph Nader, and had it not been for the candidacy of Dennis Kucinich, I might have voted for Nader again in 2004. I voted the Democratic ballot in September's primary, but I am hardly a party faithful. For 12 days last month, however, I was a warm-and-fuzzy, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. In the account that follows, I speak what for me is a surprisingly partisan truth.

It certainly wasn't the money that motivated me. At $12.70 per hour, the 10-hour days for less than two weeks would pay a few bills, but not many. I was there to distract myself from the holidays and to participate in a small piece of history—in that order. The training sessions, mandatory for all ballot counters, took place on Monday, Dec. 6, and Tuesday, Dec. 7. Work began on Wednesday, Dec. 8, and was expected to continue six days a week through Wednesday, Dec. 22. We worked from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. For the duration, ballot counters, though representing the two parties, were considered temporary employees of King County. The respective parties also designated unpaid observers to serve as monitors.

The King County Records, Elections, and Licensing Services Division enlisted regular seasonal employees to serve as recorders and runners. One recorder was assigned to each pair of partisan ballot counters to form a total of 80 teams of three people to a table. Ballot counters were obliged to sit side by side, with the recorder seated across the table. Runners, as their name suggests, were charged with the task of delivering sealed boxes of ballots to the teams and retrieving the boxes. There were also first-tier supervisors and supervisors above them in the hierarchy—all regular employees of King County Elections. Also on the scene were representatives from the Democratic and Republican parties.

While waiting for my training session the first day, I went looking for a comfy chair somewhere in the almost-vacant office building at Boeing Field, which was leased from King County International Airport by the elections division for this historic hand recount. A sign indicating the GOP Lounge looked at least partially promising. Sadly, I was shown the door moments after stepping inside. But I did manage to glimpse the big empty room with offices around the perimeter. It wasn't much of a lounge, but it was theirs, bought and paid for, as it happened, and they vigorously asserted exclusive rights to their domain. The GOP Lounge was essentially a war room, and it was strictly off-limits to Democrats.

After the mandatory training sessions for ballot counters, Republicans held a special meeting in their private quarters. Incredibly, some GOP ballot counters thought they were entitled to record the partisan meeting on their time sheets. Officials set the record straight with an announcement that the GOP meeting was not paid time.

Since the Democrats had to front the money for the hand recount to the tune of $730,000, they lacked the cash for their own private space—and frankly, I doubt the idea ever occurred to them. Meanwhile, for a mere $500, the GOP had what I joked was their own "private Idaho." They had even planned to offer free catered lunches to Republican observers and ballot counters alike, until King County elections staff cited their policy that employees, including temporary ballot counters, were barred from receiving gifts, favors, or anything else that might be perceived as exerting outside influence.

Lavender Republicans

(Kevin P. Casey)

The front-and-center recount tables.

Early Wednesday, Dec. 8, partisans began lining up for the first day of work. Fittingly for me, a Green, Democrats were obliged to wear green badges. The Republican badges were lavender, which, ironically, is the unofficial color of the gay and lesbian community. For Democrats, the only thing more amusing about this trifling detail was that the irony was totally lost on the Republicans.

Even without badges, it was not hard to tell Democrats from Republicans. Sadly, the Democrats' rainbow coalition was looking rather long in the tooth in contrast to their relatively youthful, white-bread Republican counterparts. Some among us gleefully bandied about the nom de guerre "purple people eaters" to describe our ever-angry Republican cohorts. No doubt, the Republicans had fun at our expense, too. But playful backbiting aside, the Dante's rings I had feared were nowhere in evidence—except maybe in the parking lot. The intense clash of vehicles, bumper stickers, Darwins, and fish was more than a little unnerving.

However, as Democrats and Republicans were paired up to sort ballots into precincts, the atmosphere was convivial, almost giddy. I was lucky enough to be coupled with a funny, and intelligent, young woman I'll call Ellie. Ellie was a recently laid off Web developer. As an outsourced computer professional, I found that we had some common ground. Together we got through the tedious task and even managed to have a good time. Ellie and I agreed that we had had worse jobs. In fact, I was enjoying Ellie's company so much that it barely registered when she joked (I hoped it was a joke) that the oath we had taken was invalid without a Bible to swear on. I made a mental note to keep my cursing to a minimum and to stop using the Lord's name in vain when I made a mistake.

During the break, I learned that Starbucks had offered to supply the GOP Lounge with free coffee. Election officials, however, refused to allow it, again stating that for the duration of the hand recount, temporary staffers were employees of the county and prohibited from accepting gifts or favors. (When I inquired about this, a Starbucks spokesperson said the company is a "nonpartisan organization" but could not confirm or deny an offer of free coffee to the GOP Lounge.) The lack of coffee anywhere on the premises produced a collective whine among Republicans, and even some Democrats. So election workers arrived each morning toting not only water bottles but also thermoses of hot coffee.

On one issue, almost everybody seemed to agree: We were going to need all the caffeine we could consume. Ballot counters were charged with the monumental task of counting 335,000 poll ballots and 560,000 absentee ballots—a total of nearly 900,000. The boxes of ballots locked behind a floor-to-ceiling chain-link fence—and guarded by sheriff's deputies—looked overwhelming. It felt like the whole world was watching.

The third day, Friday, Dec. 10, when the critical work of counting ballots began, I was assigned to another table with another partner, a plausible Sean Hannity look-alike. Officials seemed keen to make sure that nobody got too cozy. Mix things up and keep counters on their guard seemed to be the modus operandi. After all, we were there to count ballots and to serve as partisan police, not become pals. There was certainly no danger of my becoming pals with this guy. He alternately flirted and yelled in my face ("teasing," he called it), and at break time he disappeared into the GOP Lounge.

Of course, the fact that Democrats were not allowed in the GOP Lounge only served to feed speculation about what was going on inside that inner sanctum. One friendly GOP ballot counter, who preferred hanging out in the nonpartisan break room, told me she never went in there because it was "all politics." I had figured as much, but something else proved more telling. I noticed that if you paid attention, you could actually hear that day's GOP strategy expressed as "talking points" that bounced from table to table across the counting room. When everybody is saying basically the same thing, it is not hard to figure out what is going on. One day it was all about "over-votes."

'Over-Votes' Are Over

(Kevin P. Casey)

Boxes of ballots await the recount.

Over-votes are ballots on which the voter has done something, intentionally or otherwise, in addition to filling in a single oval. It could be as simple as a stray dot inadvertently made before or after the bubble for the desired candidate was correctly filled in. The counting machines read that as an over-vote, so such a ballot is not counted. Over-votes are also ballots on which voters have correctly "bubbled" in their choice but for some reason—perhaps emphasis— decided to also include the candidate's name as a write-in. Machines also reject these ballots as over-votes unless workers manually override it. As we ballot counters discovered, voters do some very whimsical things to their ballots. However, unlike machines, hand counters can easily determine a voter's intent in most instances.

For example, if a voter fills in the oval adjacent to Dino Rossi's name, then inexplicably colors in and circles the "R" denoting the candidate's political party and also fills in the write-in oval and writes the name "Dino 'the man' Rossi," like it or not, voter intent is pretty darn clear.

So even if the voter has technically over-voted, when the voter's intent is readily apparent, hand ballot counters are instructed to count it as a legitimate vote. It is indisputably the fairest way to honor voter intent. Rossi and Gregoire both picked up a large number of votes this way from ballots that otherwise would not have been counted, not only in King County but in counties statewide.

So the sudden flurry of over-votes identified by GOP counters that day was curious. Based on the voter-friendly interpretation of the rules, the incidence of over-votes should have been quite infrequent. Instinctively, I began to read aloud the candidate name for all over-votes identified by my GOP partner, so the observers would be made aware of how the game was being played: Designate as many Gregoire votes as you can as over-votes in an effort to get them thrown out.

Clearly, there was no concern for voter intent in this blatant practice. "Let me guess, it's a Gregoire vote," I'd say in vain hope of shaming my partner. Even smudges and stray spots of ink from other ballots were seen as fair in the GOP's over-votes game. It began to arouse the suspicions of observers. In an election as tight as this one, it was entirely feasible that such a strategy could make the critical difference between winner and loser. Within a day, the election officials got hip to the scheme and instructed all ballot counters to henceforth refer all over-votes to the canvassing board. In essence, the entire over-vote category was abolished. Clearly, this measure—along with the burden it imposed on the canvassing board—would not have been needed had the GOP refrained from conducting such an underhanded tactic.

Another time, the strategy was apparently "make a fuss." A notable handful of Republican ballot counters were suddenly speaking loudly and often about the evil and corrupt nature of the big "D" and, by extension, the small "d"—the democratic process itself. At one point, my partner, the Sean Hannity look-alike, demanded to speak with the supervisor's supervisor about a disagreement we had over the determination of a single ballot. As described above, in such cases the procedure was simply to send the ballot in question to the canvassing board. However, my über-partisan partner stubbornly refused, instead trying to bully me to surrender. For nearly 20 minutes he managed to harangue the "Democrat-controlled canvassing board" and the stupidity of women—generally and one in particular—without taking a breath.

By the time Carlos Webb, assistant superintendent for voter registration, was on the scene, it was anticlimactic. The show was over. The real objective—draw a crowd of observers behind the yellow rope adjacent to our table and, above all, the media—had been achieved. Less than five minutes after Carlos made his pronouncement, repeating what the recorder and the first-tier supervisor had already said, the Sean Hannity look-alike quietly placed a mark in the line on the tally sheet for the canvassing board and moved on. Mission accomplished.

The next day, Monday, Dec. 13, I noticed with some satisfaction that my attention-grabbing ex-partner was consigned to sorting ballots alone in a back corner under the watchful eyes of several observers. Meanwhile, I was selected by the Democrats to do a second hand recount of ballots in the section that was front and center. Republicans, similarly, made selections for ballot counters to serve in this high-profile zone. Interestingly, included in the announcements that morning was a strongly worded "reminder" about what to do when a ballot was in dispute. To paraphrase: As ballot counters, it is not your job to persuade your partner. If you do not agree on a ballot, "send it to the canvassing board. End of discussion."

After this promising start, the day abruptly turned sour. An observer who blithely ignored the "no open beverages" rule stepped forward to examine a ballot that my partner and I were huddled over, and tripped, spilling her cup of hot coffee on my backside. The ballots were spared, but for the next several hours I was obliged to work with soggy hindquarters.

At this point, a word about the ever- present observers. Speaking bluntly, observers were largely considered by ballot counters—Democrat and Republican alike—to be a clueless and mildly annoying pain in the butt (literally, in my case). To be fair, the observer role was fraught with challenges, not least among them to get up to speed about the process they were obliged to observe. Every time a new observer arrived, there was the all-too-predictable learning curve to behold. The protocol for observers was to stay behind the yellow rope and silently raise a hand whenever they had a challenge, question, or both about the proceedings. Newbies were easy to spot. They were always throwing up their hands, some with great fanfare and righteous indignation.

On one occasion, a well-meaning and diligent observer put his hand up to challenge a stack of ballots I had just counted. The supervisor for our section then asked me to recount the stack. When I asked the reason, I understood his mistake. What the observer had witnessed, upside down and from behind the rope, was a write-in that I had counted as a legitimate Dino vote. He challenged it, perhaps because he was trying to look out for the Democrats. Or perhaps he was actually an observer for the Libertarians or a write-in candidate. Normally, you could tell the partisan affiliation of the observers by a small colored label at the bottom right corner of their otherwise all-white badges. Yellow (inexplicably) denoted a Democratic observer, while lavender denoted the Republicans. I didn't happen to notice his partisan affiliation, and it wouldn't have mattered.

As I explained, the ballot in question was not a write-in but technically an over-vote, because the voter had correctly bubbled in his or her choice for governor and then also written it in. I reiterated that in such instances we were instructed not to count the vote as either a write-in or an over-vote. Since the voter intent was clear, we were obliged to count it as a vote for the chosen candidate. Satisfied, the supervisor and observer, thankfully, did not force me to recount the stack.

Now, let's be up front about this. Some people, when given a little power, become tyrants—not all, certainly, but a memorable few. It serves no useful purpose to call them out here for all-too-human failings. For the most part, I am awfully glad the observers were there and that they carried out their role so responsibly. They played a hugely important role in ensuring the integrity of the process. Even the most fired-up of partisan observers ultimately found very little to object to once they fully understood the rules. Despite what the right-wing radio blowhards in town say, the hand recount was a squeaky-clean and totally transparent process.

Losing the Partner Lottery

Speaking of transparency, one morning, as I entered the counting room, my clear plastic baggie containing lip balm, eye drops, rubber finger, surgical glove, and two Band-Aids was confiscated. I was now a seasoned professional ballot counter, and these were my tools of the trade. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and I got my baggie back in short order. Happily, I positioned my rubber finger on the middle finger of my right hand and donned my glove on my left. Later that day, standing in line at the coat check, I noticed that the Sean Hannity look-alike had a bunch of papers tucked inside the roomy inside pocket of his suit jacket, in blatant violation of the rules. I was left with the distinct impression that there were two sets of criteria for enforcement: one for tall guys wearing designer suits and an air of self-importance, and another for short, scruffy-looking Democrats.

As it happened, I continued my unlucky streak in the partner lottery for several days. I was forced to sit through a litany of unpleasant topics, including the glory of guns, subtle and not-so-subtle homophobic arguments against gay marriage, and that ever-popular anthem of the right, the evil of taxes. So it was not a moment too soon that I got hooked up with a smart, affable guy I'll call Ben. The first day we sat side by side, idly chatting for eight-plus hours, along with our designated recorder. Of course, the observers were there, too, ever hopeful for something to observe. However, we had virtually nothing to do that day. I kept thinking about all the money being spent to have us sit on our hands. We handled at most a dozen ballots, and other tables were similarly idled. Apparently, we had gotten ahead of the sorters. So we spent the day increasingly desperate for something—anything—to do but unable to leave the table. We discovered that the only thing worse than counting ballots was not counting ballots.

The next day, we had plenty of work to do, and officials had mixed things up again. I was beginning to doubt that there was a partner lottery. Often the partner matchups seemed quite intentional. This time, I was stuck with a high-strung partner with almost palpable hostility. The following day, I was paired with another aggressive partisan, but thankfully we were in no position for small talk. We were stuck in what ballot counters had come to call the "hot seat." The hot seat was in the most prominent section. Cameras were in our faces all day, and a large gaggle of observers monitored even the tiniest of personal tics with an intensity bordering on perversion.

By Friday of the second week, Dec. 19, precincts were largely sorted and everybody was counting again. I was relieved to discover that I had gotten Ben again as a partner. Actually, it was quite a surprise. I had been scouting the nonpartisan break room for a heads-up on my partner du jour, but there had been no indication. Turns out Ben was a frequenter of the GOP Lounge.

Later that day, even Ben, the most mild-mannered of my partisan cohorts, returned from lunch in a feisty mood. When he miscounted a huge box of ballots, not once but twice, the rules forced us to relinquish that precinct's ballots to another team. His voice became uncharacteristically loud and prickly as he demanded the right to send two of the ballots to the canvassing board, even though he understood full well that we had just lost that right due to his carelessness. A small group of observers gathered nearby. He insisted, "It's my right as a citizen." The supervisor of our section explained what we already knew. The rules mandated that a new team would be assigned and that we had lost all rights to make a determination about any of those ballots because our numbers did not match. After the crowd dispersed, Ben joked that maybe he needed a nap and promised to redouble his efforts to count accurately. Suddenly, he was his affable self again, but I was left with a lingering bad taste in my mouth.

Time for Prayer

Monday, Dec. 20, turned out to be the last day for most of us. The place was packed. Everybody who was anybody, and nobody, was there. The atmosphere was almost festive—we were two days ahead of schedule and proud that we had successfully survived the Election Re-Recount of 2004. Democrats even handed out cute, predictably partisan buttons to commemorate the event. It felt like the last day of summer camp—perhaps "boot camp" describes it better.

My partner that day in the lottery turned out to be cut from the same cloth as the majority of her Republican brethren. Let's just say she had control issues. Early on, she made it clear that there was one right way of doing things—her way. But after interminable hours, and days, of doing nothing but counting ballots, I was in no mood. I could count ballots in my sleep. My fingers moved with a will of their own. My counting credentials were impeccable, and I was getting increasingly tired of the GOP Way. I had learned by then that for an awful lot of Republicans, the world divides neatly in half when considering every task, question, issue, or epistemological inquiry: right and wrong. Period.

After a tense interlude during which we staked out our respective personal boundaries, my partner and I both made an admirable effort to make small talk. After all, we were facing 10 hours of togetherness. Making nice seemed the key to avoiding mutually assured destruction. I was to learn later that when she attended the University of Washington, her sorority sister was none other than the top bubble in the governor's race—that's right, Chris Gregoire. Apparently, "Christine" came later, around the time she became a lawyer, according to my partner. Yes, indeed, I had read about that sorority in the news. It was "whites only" back when some among us apparently didn't know, or didn't care to know, that racial segregation was anything but sisterly. My partner and I got through the day in this vein and, amazingly, neither of us made a single error. When the recorder read out our counts, they matched perfectly every time. We appreciated each other for that alone.

During a long stretch that day, when ballot counters were idled, one GOP counter informally visited as many tables as he could to inform other counters that everyone was being forced to pay union dues to the Teamsters. Quite a few ballot counters, especially among the GOP, it seemed, were getting pretty worked up over this "unfair" practice. Before long, conspiracy theories about the Teamsters and the King County elections division were spreading like wildfire. However, according to a spokesperson for King County Elections, Bobbie Egan, the claim was false. She explained to me that regular seasonal workers are indeed Teamsters, and as such, they are obliged to pay union dues. (They are also paid a higher hourly wage than the temporary employees.) However, because the ballot counters were temporary employees of the county, employed for less than 30 days, they were not Teamsters and would not pay union dues. The only exceptions would be in such instances, if any, in which a temporary employee worked longer. This had been my original understanding, but I admit to having had a moment of doubt when confronted with the absolute certainty of the GOP ballot counter.

Luckily, or unluckily, I was selected for one more day, Dec. 21. Tuesday's team was comprised of an elite group of ballot counters—24 on each side—chosen by their respective parties to tackle the last bunch of ballots for a final final count. It turned out to be only a half-day, and I had a terrific partner—we had the requisite combination of speed and accuracy. In fact, we were such a well-matched pair that everybody else was left idling on standby in case further recounts were necessary. They weren't. When we finished the last box—actually it was a huge two-boxer—and our counts matched, even the observers burst into applause. It was over. Everyone was dismissed—we were free to go. The only tasks remaining fell to the King County elections staff and, especially, the canvassing board. For the rest of us, the only thing left to do was to await the results.

On this last day, I learned something that confounded my notion of what had been going on in the GOP Lounge. That morning I was surprised to see that the Sean Hannity look-alike had also been selected by his party for the final day. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been. After all, I knew he was a GOP party faithful. He was a precinct officer for his Eastside district and worked on the Rossi campaign. Seeing him for the first time in the nonpartisan break room that morning, I decided to seize the opportunity to ask, "How come I see you going in and out of the GOP Lounge at breaks and lunch?" It was a good question, since counters and observers were explicitly instructed not to talk to one another, and the observer rooms on both sides—Democrat and Republican—were supposedly off-limits to ballot counters. But I had personally witnessed several other ballot counters, Ben among them, disappearing inside the GOP Lounge, some even emerging with doughnuts and other tasty contraband. The answer the Sean Hannity look-alike gave me came as a shock.

It was for prayer time, he said barely above a whisper. I had to ask the other people standing with us—one other Democratic ballot counter and two Republican ballot counters—to confirm what he said. This was something I had never considered. That a political party interested in the results of an election would conduct daily prayers, formally or informally, inside an office building in which the express purpose is to conduct civic business left me speechless. Apparently, because they had paid for the space, they felt entitled to do whatever they wanted—or, more precisely, whatever they could get away with. The revelation that prayers were being conducted in the GOP Lounge, together with the fact that the Republican candidate for governor once said he thought creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools, gave me a chilling new understanding of the phrase "party faithful." What I had thought was a contest for governor turned out to be more like a religious war.

The separation of church and state is one of the most cherished tenets of our democracy. Many would argue, myself among them, that those who seek to blur or erase the line are the real enemies of the American way of life. While I started out not caring much about who among the disappointing choices would be our next governor, suddenly I found that I care a great deal.

Our ballot-counting effort changed the outcome of the governor's race. Gregoire won by 129 votes out of more than 2.8 million. The likely ensuing legal wrangling aside, the Hand Recount of 2004 was probably the fairest and most accurate election tabulation ever. If Republicans are complaining about the outcome, they do so with knowledge that they did everything they possibly could to game the system. On one point, at least, there should be no argument: Election reform, at the state and national level, is sorely needed. We simply must find a way to ensure that no legally entitled citizen is disenfranchised, that every vote is counted.

Before going our separate ways, a handful of us, several Democrats and one Republican, went out for barbecue and beer and toasted bipartisanship. As I sat there enjoying the company of new friends and reflecting on the unprecedented election of 2004, I felt certain that as imperfect and messy as things sometimes are, this is what democracy looks like.

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