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Elections boss: Effort precedes machine counting of ballots

Mon., Aug. 16, 2010

Elections manager Mike McLaughlin stands outside the Spokane County Elections Center.  (Christopher Anderson)
Elections manager Mike McLaughlin stands outside the Spokane County Elections Center. (Christopher Anderson)

About half of Spokane County voters in Tuesday’s mail-in primary probably have returned their ballots.

Typically, though, the rest wait until election day to cast their ballots, according to elections manager Mike McLaughlin.

That’s why dependable results in close races can’t be expected until Friday, McLaughlin said. Machines can zip through a stack of ballots, but a lot of human effort comes first.

McLaughlin took a few minutes recently to explain the process.

Q. Do you really check every signature?

A. Yes. Every ballot envelope that we receive, we will scan it. We then have a three-step process of verifying those signatures. (Using computer screens, workers compare envelope signatures with those on voter registration cards. If a signature doesn’t seem to match, a more experienced worker will look. Then, if necessary, a third worker will investigate.)

Q. What are “chocolate” ballots?

A. Those are ballots that could have chocolate on them or spilled coffee, peanut butter and jelly – different food items that get stuck on the ballot. Most of the time, those ballots have to get remade because a chunk of food will make the ballot thicker and it won’t go through the tabulator. Also, ballots will get stuck together. Plus, we don’t know what’s on the ballot, and workers don’t want to have to touch that.

Q. Do the workers wear latex gloves?

A. Some of the workers do wear gloves. It’s a personal preference for each worker whether they want to use them all the time or not. … If a voter does spill coffee or anything else, we are more than happy to send them a replacement ballot.

Q. And you wish they would ask?

A. Yes, because we have to remake that ballot anyway, and we also have to spend the time doing it.

Q. What’s wrong with putting more than one ballot in an envelope?

A. It’s the oath. When you’re signing that ballot envelope you’re signing that you meet all the qualifications to vote and you voted that ballot in there.

Q. What share of ballots have problems?

A. We probably get 2 to 3 percent of the ballots with no signature or there is a mismatched signature. We resolve most of those. We have to duplicate about 8 or 9 percent of the ballots that come in (because of voters correcting themselves, extraneous marks that could mislead tabulators, torn ballots and “chocolate” ballots).

Q. How do you feel about having observers looking over your shoulder?

A. Observers are part of the process. We encourage them. Everything we do is open. They are actually a second pair of eyes to look at things. We encourage input from them. For this election, we have trained close to 100 observers. (McLaughlin said observers also can help dispel false rumors.)

Q. Anything else?

A. Read the instructions. (Dark blue or black ink works well; red or green ink doesn’t. Use the same pen throughout. Machines kick out inconsistently marked ballots.)

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