Election '04: way outside the box

They say Andy Stephenson is paranoid.

But just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not really out to get you.

For two years this brash Seattle businessman has crisscrossed the country and Internet chat rooms, sounding an alarm that your vote could be lost or altered by corporate-controlled software or incompetent bureaucrats.

To those who refuse to let the presidential election die, he's become a heroic watchdog of voter rights — first for Renton-based Black Box Voting and now for Help America Recount, which still is pushing for new vote tallies in three states.

To elections officials, he's a baseless grandstander.

No question he's got style. Three months ago he demonstrated to a room of reporters how a monkey named Baxter could hack into vote-counting software.

But the man who warned that not every vote would count never suspected it would apply to his own.

This week, Stephenson's name turned up on the list of people whose absentee ballots were rejected for the Nov. 2 election. King County had failed to check its records for a matching signature.

The irony was too much for him.

"Can you believe it?" he cried. "Of all the votes to not count, they pick mine. When I heard, I just laughed. I love it."

Later, when King County informed him his vote would probably get belatedly tallied for the governor's race, he was more subdued.

"How many people have been disenfranchised like I was?" he wondered. "We'll never know. This is just more evidence the system is broken and heads should roll over it."

Well, I don't know. I've defended the system in the past. It's still true that almost all the claims of fraud and stolen votes in recent elections have, to date, turned out to be bogus. When there were vote-counting irregularities, they were almost always due to innocent human error.

That appears to be the case in our governor's race, too. Even Stephenson suspects this is just a bone-headed mistake.

But there's no doubt the level of error has become unacceptable, to the point of threatening the legitimacy of this election.

Yesterday, Stephenson-style paranoia crept into my brain for the first time. Even the ballots for a connected politico such as King County Councilman Larry Phillips and a watchdog such as Stephenson were rejected. So what happened to my own?

I called King County Elections — 296-VOTE. Four minutes later, I was told my vote had been counted.

It turns out that because I voted in person at a polling place, my signature was never checked. This seems like a system ripe for fraud, though it did exempt me from the problems of absentee voters such as Stephenson.

I still hold out hope we'll get a governor by January. Later, maybe we'll even tighten up our lax voting system.

But one legacy of this increasingly bizarre election seems assured: It's given rich, new life to the conspiracy theories for years to come.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.