New county auditor explains election, ballot procedures

Published on Wed, Jan 4, 2012 by Debbie Adelstein

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We just completed the general election and witnessed four very close races that drew out the final decision longer than we normally see. Many have wondered why the ballots can’t be counted more quickly than they are. 

Let me take the opportunity to explain the process for counting ballots in the auditor’s office.  After the troubles in Florida in 2000 (remember the hanging chads?) and the court case following the Rossi-Gregoire governor’s race of 2004, a whole new framework of ballot review, inspection and accountability has become the norm across the state. I know for many the perception is: “I mark my ballot, I mail it in; don’t you just open it and send it through the counting machine?” It’s not quite that simple.

When a ballot envelope arrives in the auditor’s office, the initial process requires scanning it into the tracking system so it can be accounted for throughout the process. The signature on the envelope is then compared to the original registration signature on file to determine whether this ballot should proceed or if further information is needed from the voter.

If a ballot envelope is held up due to the signature not matching, having no signature at all, or a number of other causes, the voter is contacted by mail (and also by phone) to address this defect before certification day.  Ultimately, on certification day, a reconciliation report must be presented to the Canvassing Board that accounts for and explains what happened to every ballot that was received in the office. That’s 60, 70 or even 80,000 ballots.

If the ballot proceeds, then it is removed from the envelope and is inspected to be sure the counting equipment will be able to read the votes accurately.  Workers look to see that there are no food stains or other matter on the ballot, whether the ballot is marked in the area where the counting machine will read it, and whether the ballot is physically damaged.

Washington is a “voter intent” state so we are also required when inspecting a ballot to make every effort to determine that what the voter intended is reflected on the ballot. An eighty-two page manual outlining the guidelines for interpreting this has been adopted by the Secretary of State and is followed by all counties in Washington. If any ballot falls into the numerous intent categories, it must be duplicated in order to have the votes on those ballots counted as the voter wishes.

This will all lead to a delay in the counting process because the ballots will require duplication. The ballot duplication process is labor intensive and time-consuming, as an exact duplicate must be made and proofed so that it counts accurately. The duplicate and the original can be matched again for review.

Write-in votes are all accounted for as well, and state law requires we treat write-ins for “none of the above,” “anyone else,” Mickey Mouse or Santa Claus the same as any other legitimate write-in.  This can at times require duplication if the arrow wasn’t completed, and accounting for these in the ballot counting stage also slows the process.

For the November 2011 election, 30,000 ballots were received on election day and the day after (almost 50 percent of the ballots cast). As you can see, these ballots require time to process. At the auditor’s office, we have always stressed accuracy over speed in processing the ballots. 

How can the processing time be reduced? The auditor’s office will be performing its post-election review and will look at additional ways to continue to ensure accuracy and reduce the processing time. We will also meet with our citizens’ advisory group to seek their input.

What can you do to help us? If before election day you have determined how to vote, then cast your ballot and submit it early. Please keep your ballot clean, follow the instructions and avoid write-ins like Mickey Mouse and the like.

We are partners in the election process, and together we can provide fair, accurate and timely results.