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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Clark County, Washington elections officials: Voting process secure

Reminder that we’ve done this a few times aims to calm fears about election security

By Jack Heffernan, Columbian county government and small cities reporter
Published: October 30, 2020, 6:00am
4 Photos
Ridgefield resident Anthony Bilic wears a protective mask as he gets his vote in early at a downtown Vancouver ballot drop box Thursday afternoon. Bilic was among a steady stream of voters who came out on Thursday in advance of next week&#039;s election.
Ridgefield resident Anthony Bilic wears a protective mask as he gets his vote in early at a downtown Vancouver ballot drop box Thursday afternoon. Bilic was among a steady stream of voters who came out on Thursday in advance of next week's election. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

For those concerned about the vote-by-mail process ahead of the Nov. 3 general election, Clark County and Washington state elections officials have a response: We’ve been here several times before.

Clark County has had versions of mail-in voting since the early 1980s. The county Elections Office began holding mail-only elections around 15 years ago and has facilitated polling in three presidential elections since then.

“We’ve been conducting elections with mail-in ballots for a long, long time,” said County Auditor Greg Kimsey, who was first elected to his position in 1998. “Doing that for that many years has given us the opportunity to develop systems, procedures, equipment and implement any changes to laws to secure the accuracy and also improve access.”

All hands on deck

The office has roughly 120 full-time and temporary employees on hand for the election.

Staffers have placed 23 ballot drop boxes throughout the county. Ballots sent through the mail are picked up by staffers from a U.S. post office each morning in the weeks leading up to the election.

County and state officials have repeatedly lauded the U.S. Postal Service’s handling of ballots.

“Washington voters should know that sending ballot material to millions of voters this fall is a routine operation of the U.S. Postal Service,” Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman said in an August news release.

“Washington election officials have been working with the U.S. Postal Service for more than 20 years, and we believe we will receive the same level of quality service,” Wyman said. “Though it is imperative the agency maintain its functionality and efficiency, this volume of work is by no means unusual, and is an operation I am confident the U.S. Postal Service is sufficiently prepared to fulfill.”

After election workers bring ballots back to the office, they place them into a sorter.

The sorters take photos of the ballots to capture barcodes and signatures, and a file is created. That file is transferred to an election management system that compares signatures on ballots to those on voter registration cards. When signatures are challenged, those voters are contacted to resolve the issue.

Once signatures are verified on ballots, they’re passed on to other elections workers who evaluate ballot markings to ensure that the counting machine, like machines that record answers for standardized exams, would accurately record voters’ intentions.

The ballots are placed into two piles — one for “perfect” ballots and the other for ballots that would potentially be misread by the machines and need to be manually resolved.

Examples of ballots that require resolution include when voters write in names for particular offices, use fluorescent pens or circle boxes instead of filling them in.

The Secretary of State’s Office publishes a book that guides election workers who resolve any ballot issues.

“There’s a very large list of things that people can do on their ballots that would require resolution,” Kimsey said.

Once that’s finished, ballots are scanned, and information from them is stored on a memory card. After polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day, the memory card is inserted into a tabulation computer, which is kept behind a locked door until that time.

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When the computer finishes tabulating the data, it produces preliminary election results that are then published on county and state websites.

Under state law, the county can count votes until Nov. 23.

Some ballots will come in after Election Day and will count if they’re postmarked by Nov. 3. In the 10 days following the November 2016 general election, for instance, the county reported 5,778 returned ballots.

The election results become official Nov. 24, when they’re certified by the county Canvassing Board. Board members double-check the counting process and review decisions regarding ballots that arrive past the deadline and challenges to signatures.

After the election is certified, results are sent to the Secretary of State’s Office. The county will plan to store ballots for 22 months until they’re destroyed.

Consistent results

Nationally, various reports suggest that election results could be challenged in some states. In his bid for reelection, President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized mail-in voting.

In four recounts since 2012 in Clark County, tallies didn’t change by more than two votes.

After counting ballots in each election, the elections office also conducts audits by counting 600 ballots from one of the races. Those audits have matched 100 percent with the original counts, Kimsey said.

Several studies, including one from the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, have found that the number of fraudulent voter attempts in Washington state is less than a millionth of a percentage point of the total number of votes cast.

“I am extremely confident that the results of any recount or legal challenges to the elections process in the state of Washington will result in showing the integrity and accuracy of the elections office,” Kimsey said.

Columbian county government and small cities reporter