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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Dispatch from Olympia: I-917 verification process is slow and methodical

As Jonathan reported yesterday, I’m working on a couple of special projects this week in addition to taking some time off – a vacation.

Dispatch from OlympiaSince early yesterday morning I have been in Olympia representing the Northwest Progressive Institute and Permanent Defense as an observer, watching the signature verification process for Initiative 917.

The Secretary of State’s policy (in the interest of public disclosure) is to allow observers from both the sponsors and opponents to observe the initiative petition check. The opposition to I-917 is a broad coalition and includes many different, diverse groups.

A number of those groups (such as ours) are helping to supply observers.

Observers are allowed to closely watch any and every aspect of the canvassing. However, we cannot interfere with the work of the checkers (the individuals hired by the Secretary of State to help with the verification), question them directly about their decisions, handle petitions or computer systems, or record names and addresses from the petitions.

For security, we are required to wear name tags issued by the office identifying ourselves as observers. We’re also required to sign in and out when we come and go. We’re here to make the process open and transparent, as it should be. We are not here to disrupt the check, but to bring more integrity to it.

The entire process is run very efficiently, responsibly, and professionally by the Secretary of State. Checkers work quietly at two banks of state government owned computers. In all, there are about thirty checkers and almost ten second checkers working at once. (The job of the second checkers is to make sure the check is accurate. As I wrote, this is a professional operation).

The work begins every day at 6 AM in the morning and concludes at 9:30 at night, and checkers work only one of two shifts – the morning shift, which ends at 1:30 PM, or the evening shift, which begins at 2 PM.

The reason the hours are extended is that the check must be finished before the general election absentee ballots get printed and sent out. Checkers break during their shifts for lunch or dinner and for rest.

The process is lengthy. Some 266,000 signatures on petition sheets are being compared against the state’s database to verify that every voter who signed is registered. Checkers use impressive software developed in house by the Secretary of State’s office to perform a search of the database (which runs on SQL Server).

The software actually displays the signature of the voter (from the registration) which is then compared to the signature on the petition. If the penmanship looks alike, the voter is credited and the signature is accepted.

In many cases, however, the signature is rejected.

The signature may be a duplicate – in other words, the voter may have already been credited as having signed the petition. When a checker stumbles across a duplicate, the software alerts the checker, who notes a flag in the file and then notifies their supervisor. The supervisor then retrieves the petition sheet with the already credited signature to determine if it is indeed a duplicate.

The signature may also be invalid for one of several reasons:
  • Not found (can’t find a name, or the address is different and signature doesn’t match)
  • Missing (name and address mach, but signature is missing)
  • No match (name and address match, but the signature does not)
Rejections are important because every duplicate or invalid signature lowers the total number of valid signatures from the 266,006 total submitted by Eyman and his cohorts. If there are less than 224,880 valid signatures, I-917 will not appear on the ballot in November.

The Initiative 917 petitions are grouped into volumes, which are distributed to checkers for verification using a sign in/sign out system.

Checkers then meticulously compare the signatures on the petition with the signature on file, by calling up the voter registration on the computer system, as I noted earlier. It is obviously much faster to search the database this way then it is to go through the paper voter registration files.

According to the WAC (Washington Administrative Code), “a single distinctive trait is insufficient to conclude that the signatures are by the same writer. There must be a combination or cluster of shared characteristics. Likewise, there must be a cluster of differences to conclude that the signatures are by different writers.”

So checkers are instructed to err on the side of caution. Additionally, addresses need not match, because voters frequently move and forget to update their voter registration. Signatures don’t have to be exactly identical to count, just sufficiently similar, and the age of the original signature is taken into account.

Checkers also try to look for misspellings, identify both last names if a hyphenated name is not immediately found, or discover if someone’s name has changed.

That’s why the process is taking so long. But the way it’s being done now is a huge improvement from ten years ago – the last time the Secretary of State had to do a full count of all the signatures for an initiative. In that instance the elections division had to rent another building, spread the voter registration cards out on tables, and hire about a hundred people to do the check. (The initiative ultimately qualified). Computers make the process faster, cheaper, and more accurate.

There are 677 volumes of petitions. Each volume contains 25 petitions and each petition has 20 lines on it (though not all of the lines may necessarily be filled in with signatures). Each volume is assigned a number and each petition or page within each volume is numbered.

We are about a fifth of the way through the count (approximately 22%, to be more precise). The Secretary of State started the full count around the beginning of the month, following the certification of I-937 for the ballot, and it has been going on since then.

The elections division says it could very well be the end of September before they finish the count, unless a court intervenes and disqualifies any signatures on a petition not signed by the signature gatherer who circulated it. That’s a possible scenario, of course, and we’ll know if that happens.

Having now observed this process for myself, I can say all the more confidently that Tim Eyman’s assertions of theft or mishandling of petitions are entirely ridiculous and unfair. The office is being thorough, accountable, and careful in everything they do. The staff are helpful, courteous, and polite to observers. This is exactly how government is supposed to work, serving the people.

I believe Eyman is discouraged and ready to give up on I-917. Why else would he announce he’s going to bring his circus (to quote my good friend Jonathan) to Seattle itself? I had to laugh when I heard the news. As Tim Ceis says, this could easily backfire and make it harder for opponents of the mayor’s transportation improvement package to prevail.

I may try to post on my work in Olympia again tomorrow. Until my next post, I’ll leave the Official Blog in the capable hands of other Northwest Progressive Institute members. If you have any questions for me, please leave a comment in the thread and I’ll see if I can answer the next time I post.

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