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Kitsap joins in celebrity-fueled voter education campaign

Note: Political reporter Steve Gardner is on vacation, so you’re stuck with me. — Chris Henry, local government and South Kitsap reporter

What do travel writer Rick Steves of Edmonds, award-winning Seattle chef Tom Douglas, Miss Vietnam Washington Veralinda Wu and members of the Seattle Storm women’s basketball team have to do with voters in Kitsap County?

County elections officials, along with their peers in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, hope these regional celebrities and quasi-celebrities will pack enough popular culture punch to get across the message, “Quit messing up your ballots.”

The four-county ad campaign puts it much more politely, but the fact is mistakes made by voters cost taxpayers big bucks.

Ballots on which the marks are unclear must be manually examined by teams of two elections workers, a labor-intensive and costly process, said Kitsap County Auditor Walt Washington. Write-ins for Mickey Mouse? A threadbare joke and a monumental waste of precious resources. And ballots that aren’t postmarked by Aug. 7 (Nov. 6 for the general election) can’t be counted at all, which is a crying shame if you subscribe to the value of the democratic process.

Kitsap County makes repeated efforts to contact voters whose ballots lack signatures, a common mistake, Washington said. If elections workers can circle back with voters and verify signatures by the time the election is certified, they can still be counted.

The date for certification of the primary election is Aug. 21.

Kitsap County, with a current tally of about 146,000 registered voters, is “piggybacking” off the purchasing power of King County, with more than one million voters, Washington said. The four counties together can achieve an “economy of scale” in producing the TV, radio and print ads, according to King County elections spokeswoman Kim vanEkstrom.

Each celebrity adds his or her own message to the voter education effort. “Following directions gets me where I need to go. Same thing when I vote,” the peripatetic Steves says in one of the ads.

Conversely Douglas says, “As a chef, I seldom follow directions. As a voter, I always do.”

Ms. Wu, in a poster that comes in English and Vietnamese, says, “As a pageant winner, I get to serve my community. As voters we all can.”

And the Seattle Storm, well, it has something to do with the fact that they “move around a lot,” and voters who move need to keep their information current.

Steves, who lives in an area affected by the 2012 changes to Congressional district boundaries, calls attention to a potential point of confusion in this year’s primary. Because of redefined district boundaries based on recent Census data, some voters will get to vote in two congressional races, including one to fill the unexpired term of Democrat Jay Inslee, the former District 1 congressman who stepped down in March to focus on his campaign for governor.

The redistricting put all of Kitsap County in District 6. Kitsap voters who were previously in District 1 will vote to fill the short-term vacancy for District 1 Representative, and they will vote for a U.S. Representative in Congressional District 6. Longtime District 6 Congressman Norm Dicks, a Democrat, is retiring at the end of the year.

Voter outreach in King County has included ads aimed at increasing voters’ accuracy in following directions for the past three years. And it’s working.

In February 2009, before the campaign 4 percent of King County ballots were undeliverable due to voter information that was not up to date. That may not sound like much, but with more than one million voters all that wasted postage adds up. In 2011, the percentage of undeliverable ballots was 1.4 percent.

This is the first year celebrities — all of whom are volunteering their time — have been part of the ad campaign, vanEkstrom said.

Kitsap County participated with King County in the ad campaign for the first time last year. Auditor Washington noted a drop in the ballot error rate from 17 percent in 2010 to 12 percent in 2011.

King County began collecting scientific data on how well voters understand elections rules they must follow in order for their vote to count. Previous unscientific surveys showed the ad campaigns increased their attention to detail. By the time the general election is over, vanEkstrom expects to have more solid data to back up the effectiveness of the campaign.

King County is spending $150,000 on the voter education ad campaign, and they have some federal grant money to devote toward the cost. Kitsap’s share of the four-county campaign is $10,000. The Washington Secretary of State is kicking in $100,000 for ads, like the Rick Steves segment, meant to diffuse confusion over the District 1 temporary vacancy.

It doesn’t sound like any celebrities from the Kitsap area will be part of the ad campaign, although we have our share of notables … author Debbie Macomber, radio phonom Delilah, sports figures Willie Bloomquist, Marvin Williams and Norm Johnson, Mike Herrera of MxPx fame, The Professor from Gillian’s Island … Surely I’m missing someone.

So what do you think these local celebrities and others might say to promote voter education?