King County Superior Court Judge James Doerty today ordered King County election officials to count all ballots for a Medina City Council seat on which a candidate’s name is clearly written. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington on behalf of Katie Phelps, a write-in candidate in the November 2003 election for Medina City Council.
Phelps waged a write-in campaign challenging incumbent Daniel Becker for a seat on the Medina City Council. The race was so close that King County election officials undertook a manual recount, and the official results found Becker ahead by three votes. Twenty-nine additional ballots had Phelps’s name clearly marked as a write-in but were declared invalid because voters failed to also darken the adjacent oval on the ballot. In today’s ruling the court found that the decision not to count these votes was erroneous.
“The right to vote for the candidate of your choice is a fundamental part of our democracy. We’re pleased the court agreed that the intention of the voter should be honored,” said ACLU attorney Doug Klunder, who handled the case.
Officials had based their decision not to count the 29 write-in ballots on a provision of the state’s election law amended in 1999 (RCW 29.04.180) requiring voters using “optical-scan mark sense ballot systems” to fill in the oval for a write-in vote. The ACLU argued that in a manual recount, the County did not use an optical scan system, so the limitation should not apply. Further, the ACLU contended that constitutional principles require the counting of all ballots on which the voter’s intention is clear.
A longstanding principle of Washington case law (first articulated in State v. Fawcett, 1897) holds that, “All statutes tending to limit the citizen in the exercise of the right of suffrage should be liberally construed in his favor. … The important thing is to determine the intention of the voter, and to give it effect.” State law (RCW 29.62.180) provides that “voters may write in on the ballot the name of any person for an office … and such vote shall be counted the same as if the name had been printed on the ballot and marked by the voter.”