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As race narrows, Conlin and Sawant look to unverified ballots

Campaign manager Ramy Khalil talks to volunteers at Kshama Sawant's headquarters on Saturday. Credit: Photo: Bill Lucia

With a Friday night tally showing that longtime Councilmember Richard Conlin’s once healthy lead in his re-election campaign had shrunk to about 1,200 votes, he and his Socialist opponent, Kshama Sawant, began efforts over the weekend to ensure that all of their supporters' ballots were counted.

The methods their campaigns used to reach supporters were distinct. Conlin’s camp emailed backers and asked them to check on the King County Elections website that their ballot had been verified. The campaign also asked for volunteers who could work at phone banks calling voters with problematic ballots. Sawant’s campaign, meanwhile, launched a door-to-door volunteer effort to track down supporters whose votes hadn’t been counted because they either did not sign their ballot or signed with a signature that wasn't valid.

“It’s coming down to the wire,” Conlin said in an email to supporters. “The race is extremely tight and we need to make sure every vote is counted.”

Speaking to a group of about 30 volunteers at the campaign’s headquarters on Sunday, Sawant’s political director, Philip Locker, exhibited a similar sense of urgency. “There’s no room for complacency, or to just assume we’re going to win this,” he said.

The drama in the race emerged somewhat unexpectedly last week. On election night Conlin, a four-term councilmember first elected in 1997, had a 7.5 percentage point lead over Sawant. Election results released last Friday at 8:30 p.m. showed that advantage had dissolved to less than 1 percentage point, with only 1,237 votes separating the candidates. Nearly every set of results released after Election Day showed a larger percentage of the newly counted ballots breaking in Sawant’s favor.

Given the narrow vote margin, the race could be headed toward a recount. State law requires machine recounts in elections decided by less than 2,000 votes and less than one-half of 1 percent of the total votes cast. Hand recounts are required in contests where the difference in votes is less than 150 and under one-quarter of 1 percent. For a fee, campaigns can also request recounts. The cost is 15 cents per ballot if the recount is done using machines and 25 cents per ballot if it is done manually.

Adding to the uncertainty are ballots with signature problems — between 6,000 and 7,000 of them, according to Locker. The county mails a notice to voters who either forgot to sign their ballots or used a signature that does not match the one on their voter registration documents. These voters have until Nov. 25 to sign and return an affidavit that will re-qualify their ballot and allow it to be counted.

Sawant’s campaign was trying to expedite this process by sending volunteers out to collect the affidavits from supporters. Targeting low-income areas and precincts that primary results showed to be dense with Sawant voters, about 50 volunteers hit the streets on Saturday. Another crew of about 30 headed out around noon on Sunday. Locker said the effort would continue until the Nov. 25 signature verification deadline.

Conlin’s campaign did not return calls for comment on Sunday, but did email a statement from the councilman. “We are currently continuing to wait on further results from the County as they process and count the ballots they have on hand,” the statement said. “We expect each count to give more information, but it looks like we will not have final results for at least several days.”

The email that Conlin’s campaign sent to supporters on Saturday included a link to the King County Elections web page where voters can check to see if their ballot has been received and verified.

According to Locker, the Sawant campaign’s door-to-door effort to rustle up unverified votes yielded about 100 signature affidavits on Saturday.

At a Sunday volunteer training session, Locker told supporters to only collect affidavits from Sawant supporters. “Conlin is not going around collecting Sawant ballots, I promise you,” he said. If voters indicated that they were Conlin supporters, he told the door knockers to say that they were collecting information for future Sawant campaigns.

A volunteer who worked during the Saturday affidavit drive told Sunday’s group that he’d run into language-barrier problems, and at times resorted to hand-gestures to explain the signature verification process.

Sawant’s campaign manager, Ramy Khalil, made an appeal for donations at the training session. He told the volunteers that the campaign was currently about $20,000 in debt.

A campaign finance report amended on Nov. 4 showed Sawant's camp with $14,877 of cash on hand and a negative balance of $19,232 after factoring in liabilities. A report filed on Oct. 31, showed Conlin's campaign with $59,744 of cash on hand and a balance of $51,744 including liabilities.

Talking to a reporter after the training session, Khalil said Sawant's campaign was “lining up” lawyers with expertise in election law. “There’s been a history of impropriety with vote counts in this country,” he said.

Ronnie Rodriquez works for Washington Community Action Network and spends much of his week knocking on doors to build support for advocacy campaigns. On Saturday and Sunday he volunteered for Sawant and on Sunday afternoon he was looking for the owners of unverified ballots in Fremont.

An hour of walking, knocking and doorbell ringing, yielded ten unanswered doors and two people who took Rodriquez up on his offer to turn in their affidavits. Voter Wendy Whitfield had received a notice from King County earlier in the week that said she hadn’t signed her ballot. “I can’t believe I did that by the way,” she said as she gave Rodriquez the form.

In the statement his campaign issued Sunday, Conlin said that his own ballot had not yet been verified. “I found out that my ballot has not had its signature checked as of yet, even though I mailed it in well before Election Day,” the statement said. “We don't really know much about the composition of the ballots left to be counted, so it is still too early to tell.”

King County will release the next vote count at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

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