Recall tedium under way

Dale Washam: Pierce County elections workers begin effort to verify petition signatures, rejecting 11 percent of first 4,916 signatures they examine through Thursday

August 19, 2011 

For sheer excitement, it’s hard to match the spectacle of elections workers verifying petition signatures. The process is almost as entertaining as counting pine needles on the forest floor.

It’s the big show at the Pierce County Elections Center for the next two or three weeks. Admission is free.

Observers will see about 20 elections staffers grinding through petitions signed by backers of an effort to recall Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam.

Recall campaign leader Robin Farris submitted 65,500 signatures to the county auditor last week and promised to submit more before an Aug. 30 deadline.

On Thursday, workers started the verification process. That meant sitting in front of a computer screen for eight hours, looking at each signature and comparing it with the recorded signature in the county’s voter registration database.

Farris stopped by for a few minutes Thursday morning, looking through a window at the seated, silent workers. She was the only observer. There wasn’t much to do, so she soon scooted off to other business.

“I decided that I would pop in routinely, but just let them do their job,” she said.

County Auditor Julie Anderson hosted a briefing for interested parties Wednesday morning to explain the guidelines for observers. About a dozen recall backers, including Farris, listened to the rundown of the rules. No one from Washam’s side showed up.

The rules allow two observers from each side. They’re supposed to stay at least an arm’s length from elections workers, and they’re supposed to be quiet. There is no provision for spur-of-the-moment finger-pointing and shouts of “Aha!”

“We want you to respect the personal space of the people that are doing this,” elections manager Mike Rooney said. “We don’t want you hovering over their back while they’re trying to check a signature.”

The state administrative code outlines the standard for signature verification. The first requirement is “agreement in style and general appearance” with the signature on file. One similarity isn’t enough for verification; one difference isn’t enough for rejection.

“There must be a combination or cluster of shared characteristics,” the rule states.

Reasons for rejection include lack of a match, duplication or lack of voter registration. Each reason has its own code, punched into the computer by the individual worker.

Elections workers expect to run roughly 5,000 signatures per day. Results of each day’s labor will be posted on the auditor’s website, Anderson said.

The daily results will include the numbers of verified and rejected signatures, providing a running tally as well as a rough error rate. Thursday’s totals, after a single day of counting: 4,383 valid signatures and 533 rejections, an error rate of about 11 percent.

The last factor matters to Farris, who is still gathering signatures and hopes to build a cushion big enough to overcome the error rate.

Her magic number is 65,495 – the official threshold to bring the recall to the ballot on Nov. 8. It represents 25 percent of the voters in the 2008 general election. Anderson said the county will tally all the valid signatures, above and beyond the legal threshold.

As of Thursday, Farris had collected 73,303 signatures, according to her campaign website. That represented a cushion of roughly 8,000 signatures. Her ultimate target is 80,000.

“I think we’ll make it,” she said.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 sean.robinson@ thenewstribune.com

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