Thursday, September 22, 2005

Something at the Pierce County Election Center doesn’t smell right.

Here’s what's stirring up my olfactory: a candidate is opening and counting his own race’s ballots (among others). Is he cheating or pulling a "Logan"? Probably not, because Republican observers are watching him like a hawk. Does it give the appearance of impropriety? Yes. And, given last year's King County election fiasco, does it make us feel all warm and fuzzy about our elections system? Hell no!

What the heck is going on?

Dave Stipek, husband of former County Auditor Cathy Pearsall-Stipek, is running for one of the 21 positions on the Charter Review Commission, an every ten year review and change of the Pierce County Charter. It is a non-partisan election and, because there are three folks vying for the position, Dave's race is on the primary ballot. The top two contenders will go forward to November’s General Election. Because there is no specific law that prevents anyone being hired to help with the election, Dave Stipek was hired and has been working at the elections center for years, originally by his wife - the former Auditor.

Ok, it gets a bit more interesting. Even though his wife is no longer the Auditor, his wife is running for another position on the Charter Review Commission. (And an "urban myth" has it that a son-in-law is running for the Commission as well.) At any rate whether there are one, two or three Stipek’s running for office, none should be counting their own ballots.

When we found out that this was happening, the lead Republican Observer reported the fact and talked to the Auditor about replacing Dave. As long as he was in the race he should not be counting ballots. No go. Pat McCarthy, a Democrat Auditor with ambitions for County Executive in 2008, let the Lead Republican Observer know that she would not replace Dave since, among other things, he was a long time election worker and was one of but a few who could operate the envelope slicing and opening machine. So I called the Auditor and in a very friendly conversation she let me know that she just could not replace Dave, but that if he did make it through the primary to the general election, she would not let him count ballots or slice envelopes at the November session.

After my conversation with Pat McCarthy, I asked myself two questions. First: "what facts would have to be present for her to make the argument she was making"? Second: Are those facts present? (These are great questions to ask if you are in the autocratic organization and the boss is making counterintuitive decisions.) Ok, I reasoned, if she had a skill and staffing problem that she could not correct on short notice she would argue as she did. And she did say that Dave was uniquely able to run the envelope opening machine. So maybe she does have a staff problem. But wait a minute, shouldn’t a good manager have a backup plan. What happens when someone calls in sick?

Still feeling that something wasn't right, I e-mailed Sam Reed, the Secretary of State. Here’s what I said:


In Pierce County, Pat McCarthy is using a current contested primary candidate as an election worker to handle and count our ballots. While I don’t think that Dave Stipek, a long time, trusted elections worker, would do anything to cheat; the public perception, in light of last year's King County fiasco, may be another story.

I talked with Pat and our conversation, as always, was friendly. She is, in fact, a pretty fair Auditor and an unwavering straight arrow. But she is unwilling to relieve Dave of his current election responsibilities or move him to, for example, an observer role. He does have skills she needs and I suspect she may not be able to replace them on short notice. She did agree that if Dave wins his primary race as a Charter Review Commissioner he would not be an elections worker in the General Election. I did agree to this compromise, because I am not sure she has enough skilled manpower for any other options. But I am still alarmed with the effect it could have on the public perception of Pierce County election integrity.

I am not a lawyer, but I haven't found any statute that prevents hiring an individual to perform ballot handling or counting duties who also happens to be a candidate on the same ballot. On the other hand, it would seem we have a moral obligation, trebled since the last election, to be vigilant in protecting the perception that our process is safe and secure. That puts you in a bind. If there is no law for you to enforce, you have only the bully pulpit of your office to provide moral suasion to the Pierce County Auditor to not use a current candidate as an election worker.

I would ask that you use that bully pulpit to convince Pat to rethink her position. If manpower or expertise is the underlying problem, perhaps you could offer expert help from your staff or from another Auditor (minus King County).

Your thoughts?


What I got back was as wishy as it was washy:

Dear Mr. McCarty:

Secretary Reed asked that I respond to your request.

You are correct that there is nothing in state law that prevents a candidate from serving as a poll worker. In fact there are no requirements other than each major political party is to give the County Auditor a list of nominees to work the polls. If the parties do not give the County Auditor a complete list, she has the authority to hire others to fill the positions.

The hiring of poll workers falls completely within the authority of the County Auditor and no law has been violated. The Secretary of State does not have authority to change the Pierce County policy.

Your concerns appear to be adequately addressed by Ms. McCarthy by agreeing to make a change in the General if Mr. Stipek is nominated.

If you find that a law has been violated, we would definitely want to know and we would address the issue with Ms. McCarthy. In this case, the law has not been violated, so we cannot take any action.


Sheryl Moss
Office of the Secretary of State.

So I should be a detective and discover broken laws myself. Isn’t that being a vigilante? Besides, I didn’t ask the Secretary of State about poll workers (those that man the polls and are nominated by the parties.) I asked about election workers (those that man the Election Centers and count the ballots and are hired by the Auditor).


Ok, I sighed, I’ll ask another Auditor what they do. Whoa, did I get an earful – and it made me proud to be a Republican.

Kim Wyman, the Republican Thurston County Auditor, and Sam’s successor, told me that yes there were no laws that she was aware of that precluded hiring a candidate to count ballots. On there other hand, it was stupid to do so. It left the Auditor open to criticism and the election process open to question. So her office policy, written in blood, is that neither a candidate nor anyone related to a candidate or a campaign can touch a ballot. That’s pretty absolute (and welcome). So I asked Kim what about people with special skills, like, for example, the guy who can operate the envelop opener. What happens if the one guy or gal who can do that work decides to run for office? Her answer was most gratifying. First, the job of running that machine is not that difficult and is easily learned. Second, every job and skill in her office is backed up and more. She said she has to be able to count ballots with absolute certainty, no matter what. And her worst case scenario is: Deryl, what if one or more of my election workers win the Lotto on the way into work on election night. I have to have a backup for all of them – including myself.

After I finished talking with Kim Wyman, I got the distinct impression that maybe I had just had a conversation with an ideal Secretary of State.

Ok, the bottom line is the future, not the past. I hate asking the Legislature to pass laws to fix very specific problems that common sense office policies can fix. But what choice do we have? We should write a law that says:

1. No one who touches a ballot in a county Election Center can be a candidate or related to a candidate (within two levels i.e. second cousin or closer). This includes PCO candidates as well as candidates for partisan and non-partisan positions.

2. No one associated with a partisan or non-partisan campaign may touch a ballot. That does not mean you can’t support whomever you will, it means you can't be part of their campaign organization.

3. Candidates, their relatives and campaign workers are encouraged to act as election observers along side party workers to assure themselves and the public that the ballot counting process is on the up and up.

4. No one related to the Auditor or Auditor’s Election supervisor(s) may be hired to count ballots.

The latter issue stems from the fact that Dave Stipek was hired by his wife to help count ballots. I suspect that Pat McCarthy would not be caught dead with a charge of nepotism. It didn’t seem to bother the former Auditor much.

Well, so much for helping the election process. Passing a law feels good, but unless someone the public can trust to make the hard choices fairly is elected to run the Auditor’s office, all will come to naught. At best you get appearance and perception problems like Dave Stipek. At worst you get Dean Logan.



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At 23 September, 2005 22:06, Blogger The Mobile Tech said...

Just a comment on your suggestion about Kim Wyman as Secretary of State...YES! YES! YES! She's an outstanding manager of both people and resources, and a responsible public servant...a rare gem in a pile of coal here in Thurston County.

Sam Reed's a nice guy, but he's just not strong enough to face the gargoyles of Olympia and King County.

Mr Write

At 25 September, 2005 12:10, Blogger Patrick said...

SoundPolitics picks up the story; well kind of:

Who's counting the ballots in Pierce County?

See the linked post here.

At 26 September, 2005 07:14, Blogger Easycure said...

I completely agree that having candidates double as election workers is a dirsturbing thing.

It's like having former drug addicts working as pharmacists. It could just be a bit tempting, right?

At 27 October, 2005 21:18, Blogger Steve said...


Not having seen the letter opener work, my comments may be off base.

I imagine the machine slitting the envelopes but not revealing the votes cast on the ballot. As long as that is the operation, it would seem anyone trained could operate the machine without compromising the count. I would also suspect that the machine is very fast (the reason for its use) and observing and altering results would be nearly impossible. Of course, the smell is bad but not fatal.

I would not eliminate PCO candidates out of hand, most run unopposed and many are dedicated election workers. Their ballot count is generally miniscule in the scheme of things and separating their precinct ballots and altering them would be a monumental job.

I would also point out that the Secretary of State is limited in power by the Constitution and RCW and, unfortunately, does not always have the authority to act. County auditors, however, following their county charters often do have powers. Whether or not they execise them is another story.

By the bye, what is with the comments that are really commercials?

At 30 October, 2005 21:24, Blogger The Geezer said...

Well, I know all these playas.

Pat and Cathy were on the school board, when I was in UP.

Like them all, Dave included. Nice folks. I trust them. But I also know that Cathy and Dave are pols with a capital P.

Why risk the perception?

I dunno. Maybe Pat had a brain fart. Not worth it in my book. Nice to see that poltics are still exciting in Pierce, even though I am now in Snoho.

The Geezer

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