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What happens to my ballot after I drop it off? Behind the scenes as voting pace accelerates

Donna Stath wears a blue mesh vest with the word “ELECTIONS” on it, as she stands next to a Pierce County ballot drop box. She’s helping voters as they drop off their ballots.

A car pulls up, a window rolls down, a hand reaches out with a burgundy and white envelope.

“Hello! Thank you!” Stath says, taking the envelope from the voter and putting it in a slot just a few inches away. Not a huge distance — the voter watches as Stath puts the ballot in the slot — but it keeps the cars moving.

Most people are friendly, she says, even those who’d rather she not touch their ballot.

“Every now and then you get one that’s a little more determined than the others,” she says with a chuckle. But it’s not a problem.

“More than fine,” she says.

The pace of voting in this year’s election is well beyond anything the state saw in 2016. Pierce County reported triple the amount of ballots received in the first five days of voting, as compared to the last presidential election. That story has been echoed throughout Western Washington.

After the ballot is put into a drop box, a rigorous collection process follows:

  • Teams of election workers — always in pairs, never alone — are dispatched every day, collecting from half of the 46 drop boxes throughout Pierce County. On Election Day, all the drop boxes are emptied after 8 p.m. The crews carry county-owned mobile phones, which allow headquarters to track their location and see how long they spent at each location.
  • They put the envelopes into specially marked cardboard boxes, which are then sealed with a red piece of plastic. The seal has a number, which is recorded on two pieces of paper. One paper goes inside the box, and one on the lid.
  • When the ballots return to the county warehouse, crews and supervisors make sure boxes are accounted for from all the locations on the route list.
  • The cardboard boxes are opened and those numbers are compared to make sure the boxes haven’t been tampered with between collection and opening.

And that’s when the processing of votes begins. Envelopes — still sealed — are run through a mail sorter at a rate of about 18,000 per hour. A bar code tells the system whose ballots have been received.
Signatures are compared to the ones in the voter registration system.

Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson says about 20 to 30 percent of signatures warrant an extra look. In this year’s August primary, the rejection rate was low. Of the 279,580 ballots received in that election, just 1,310 were rejected because of either a signature that didn’t match or no signature at all. That’s 0.4 percent.

Anderson says voters are always notified if their ballot is challenged for a signature issue, and the voter has until the day prior to certification to clear things up.

All this time, the envelope is still sealed.

The envelopes go into trays, in groups of 250, then into a room with workers sitting at individual tables out in the open. That’s where ballots are separated from envelopes and sent along to be scanned by the machines that record each voter’s individual choices.

The results are not tabulated — which means no one sees the totals, not even staff — until after 8 p.m. on Election Day.

“This is not the most glamorous part of democracy. I understand that. But it’s also the most important part,” said James Long, associate professor of political science at the University of Washington.

This is not the most glamorous part of democracy. I understand that. But it's also the most important part.

Long studies election systems and has been an international observer of elections in Kenya, Afghanistan, South Africa and other countries. He also hosts a podcast about election security.

Mail-in voting isn’t perfect, he says. For example, voters can make choices early in the voting window, and then have things happen later that might change their minds. Think about the Democratic presidential primary in March, where voters chose candidates who would subsequently drop out of the race.

But Long says Washington’s system is really good. First, postage is prepaid, so voters don’t need to find a stamp. And he says the way counties process and tally ballots is solidly in line with international standards.

Long said election officials here have had a lot of practice at getting this right.

“The problem in a state like Michigan or Florida or Pennsylvania is they haven’t had the experience over time like Washington to get the processing part correct,” he said. “It’s going to take them a long time. It’s going to be a job they’ve never done at scale at this level.”

They might not have had the same training as Washington election workers on how to verify signatures, for example. And voters could get anxious from waiting. Long’s advice to voters in those states? Relax. Let the election administrators get through their work.

That's less of an issue here in Washington state.

“Well, I tell you what, I wish I could turn down the noise,” said Anderson, the Pierce County auditor. By noise, she means the information flying around about voting in other states that worries people here. She said she spends a lot of time responding to questions or concerns that have nothing to do with Washington state’s voting system, like long lines at polling places.

“Or one state won’t open and process ballots if it’s missing the secrecy sleeve, which is something Washington state would never do,” Anderson said. “We’re in the business of counting ballots, not keeping ballots out.”

We're in the business of counting ballots, not keeping ballots out.

There are 13 full-time staff members in Pierce County’s elections division. But in a presidential election year, seasonal employees boost the workforce to about 300 people. At the end of the day, the mission is to make sure the public trusts the results.

“That’s what gets us going and keeps us going — knowing that we’re the stewards, and we want people at the end of the day to leave with a good feeling and have confidence,” Anderson said. “We’re going to make some great decisions in Washington state. The more people that participate, the better decisions the government will make.”

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.