Each election, Clark County voters get their ballots in mail, fill them out and return them to the county elections office. While most of us trust the process to verify and count those ballots is secure and private, do we really know what happens to ballots once they leave our hands?
Two years after Donald Trump’s supporters made baseless claims, election fraud remains the focal point for several candidates, including Clark County auditor candidate Brett Simpson. Simpson twice sued Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey alleging voter fraud. Both lawsuits were dismissed earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Kimsey offers to talk to any voter about election security. This week The Columbian took him up on that offer.
The process begins with voter registration. Like all Washington residents, Clark County citizens can register to vote by any of three ways — online, by mail or in person.
“A majority of our voters are registering online either through the Department of Licensing or other government agency or just directly on VoteWa.gov,” Kimsey said in an interview Thursday.
To be eligible to vote, you must be a United States citizen; a legal resident of the state, county and precinct for 30 days immediately preceding the election in which you want to vote; and be at least 18 years old by Election Day. (Civic-minded teens can register as a “future voter” at age 16.)
“When someone submits a voter registration form, the VoteWa.gov system compares that information they submitted against the Department of Health’s death records and the Social Security Administration’s master index list,” Kimsey said.
The process also checks to ensure the voter’s name and date of birth match the information on the person’s state-issued identification, such as a drivers license. The county elections office then takes it a step further.
“We also confirm it is a legitimate address in the county,” Kimsey added.
Not everyone is eligible to vote. For example, individuals incarcerated by the Department of Corrections for a felony conviction or incarcerated for a federal or out-of-state felony conviction are ineligible to register.
What’s on the ballot?
Once candidates have filed for office and local jurisdictions have provided any ballot measures to be included, the election must be programmed into a computer.
Before each election, the elections office performs a logic and accuracy test designed to ensure the tabulation computers and software produce accurate results.
“We create this big matrix that has all the ballot formats and all the different candidates and issues,” Kimsey said.
A ballot style or format includes the races and ballot measures that apply to a specific set of voting precincts. For example, during the Feb. 8 special election the ballot format for voters in Precinct 631 included measures for the Evergreen School District and city of Vancouver, while the ballot format for voters in Precinct 634 included only the Evergreen School District measure.
Staff will cast test votes using each ballot format and scan the ballots into the tabulation system. The results are then checked against the results in the matrix.
“That way we confirm that the voting system is properly tabulating votes in each of these ballot formats and each of these races,” Kimsey said.
“It shows that the ballots are programmed properly, too, and the system is counting properly. We do it for every ballot style, every precinct, every contest, every candidate,” Elections Supervisor Cathie Garber added.
Even though it is not required by law, Garber said the elections office takes the extra step of adding precinct committee officer races to the test. When state offices are on the ballot, as they are next month, Kimsey said the Secretary of State’s office will observe the testing. The testing is also open to the public. The date and time of the test is announced in advance.
Once the test is complete, the room containing the computer equipment and tabulation software is locked and secured with a security tag, which is checked when the room is unlocked on election night.
Ballots for the Nov. 8 general election will begin showing up in local mailboxes this weekend, but those living overseas or serving in the military likely already have theirs in hand. Kimsey said ballots are mailed to military personnel and overseas voters 45 days before the election. The remaining ballots are mailed 18 days before the election.
Depending on where the person is overseas and the mail service available in that country, some ballots come back quickly. Others can take weeks to arrive, Garber said. By Thursday, the county had already received a few returned ballots.
Once ballots arrive at the elections office, the voters’ signatures must be verified.
“Every ballot envelope that is returned to us is examined by people who have been trained by the Washington State Patrol’s fraud division for signature verification,” Kimsey said. “They are examining the signature on every ballot envelope … and comparing it to the signature on the voter registration record.”
Garber said staff will use multiple points of comparison to verify a signature.
If the signature verification inspector confirms there is a good comparison, then the ballot envelope is put forward for processing. If the signatures do not match or the signature has been left off, the ballot envelope is challenged and the voter is contacted and given information on how to fix or “cure” the signature.
Fixing a ballot envelope with a missing or unmatched signature can be done in person at the elections office or by signing a copy of the ballot declaration and returning it to the auditor’s office.
“That ballot will remain inside the security envelope until that signature issue is resolved,” Garber added.
Inspecting the ballots
After the signatures are verified and ballots envelopes are sorted by precinct, the ballots are brought to the inspection board.
The inspection process starts as ballots are returned, even before Election Day.
“Starting next week, this room will be full with about 50 or 60 people, or more,” Kimsey said.
He said ballots are sorted into two groups. The first group includes ballots where the scanning machines and software can properly interpret the voter’s intent. The second group includes ballots that require adjudication, meaning someone must look at the ballot to determine the voter’s intent.
Before staff inspect the ballots, Garber said they take an additional step to ensure voter secrecy.
“When they have a stack of secrecy sleeves with ballots, they swap them with their partner across the table for the slight chance that when they were opening that envelope, maybe they saw their neighbor’s name … it’s opened by another person so it’s absolutely anonymous,” Garber said.
While the affidavit envelope has the voter’s name and address, the secrecy sleeve and ballot have no identifying information. Kimsey said all of this means while the elections office can track whether someone voted, there is no way to record or track how they voted.
Garber also noted that independent observers from the Democratic and Republican parties and specific organizations watch the entire process.
“They’ll be standing at the end of every table, there’s a spot for them to watch the adjudication, they watch the signature verification, they can watch any ballot processing,” Garber said.
Kimsey said observers are very important to the elections process and help ensure transparency. He said while observers are allowed to watch any part of the ballot counting process, they must follow security rules. For example, at last two people at a time must enter any rooms that house computer equipment or ballots. “Even if they did come in, it’s a very supervised and watched area,” Garber added.
After the ballots are scanned, the data is saved on secure memory cards, called V-drives, that are locked in a safe.
“On election night … those V-drives are inserted into the tabulation computer. Press a button and we get preliminary election results,” Kimsey said.
Although the computer can tabulate results quickly, Kimsey said it can take days following an election before the results are known. That’s because a large number of ballots arrive late, and take time to be inspected and verified. Updated results are released each day, as long as there are 500 or more ballots to process.
“We get a lot of ballots in on Election Day and the day after Election Day. All of those ballots have to go through the signature verification process and that takes time,” he said.
Ballots must be postmarked or deposited in ballot boxes by Election Day, which is Nov. 8 this year, but can be received and counted by the elections office until the day before certification on Nov. 29 this year.
As for fears that computer hackers could change voting results, Kimsey said that can’t happen because the there’s no way to access the computer from outside of the building.
“It has no wireless communication capability,” Kimsey said. “It’s not only not connected to the internet, it’s not connected to any server outside of this room.”
“There’s no Wi-Fi, no Bluetooth, no internet,” Garber added.
Kimsey said a virus or other malware program couldn’t be loaded onto the computer either. There are blockers that prevent access to the computer’s ports and won’t allow executable files. That means other software programs, such as a virus, spyware or malware, cannot be installed.
For more information about the Clark County elections office, go to https://clark.wa.gov/elections.