Ballots deposited in four Ferry County drop boxes remained there for more than a week after the Aug. 7 primary because elections officials said they didn’t have the personnel and resources to collect them.
Some 65 ballots remained in locked and sealed drop boxes outside Republic, the county seat, waiting for pickup by authorized personnel. Under state law, drop box ballots must be opened and placed in secure storage by a designated team of two people.
But state law doesn’t say when they must be collected before the final count, only that the boxes be emptied “with sufficient frequency to prevent damage and unauthorized access to the ballots.”
County Auditor Dianna Galvan and another county official collected ballots from the box in Republic after 8 p.m. on election night, but boxes in Danville, Curlew, Keller and Inchelium – a round trip of nearly 170 miles – were merely locked shut by local people hired to do that after the deadline for depositing ballots passed.
The boxes remained locked shut, with the ballots inside, until this week because Galvan had a family emergency and Elections Administrator Liz Stinson was at a training session.
Karen Hardy, the Democratic candidate for state Senate, said she was concerned the ballots left in boxes could be spoiled. The region is experiencing wildfires or the boxes could be vandalized, she said.
“Voters need to have confidence their ballots are handled properly,” Hardy said. “I don’t think it’s anything nefarious as much as a lack of good planning.”
Erich Ebel, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, said the state elections office encourages counties to pick up ballots from their drop boxes “as soon as possible” after the election.
“According to the law, they have this window of time to go out,” Ebel said, and Ferry County is within that window. “But I would say this is not standard practice … This is not an ideal situation.”
Stinson said the delay was unavoidable until the auditor’s office had the staff to make the trip, which it did this week by paying overtime. None of the ballots was spoiled. They were counted Thursday afternoon, and the secretary of state’s voter turnout table says the county has 25 ballots on hand to be processed by next Tuesday.
That’s the same number the table has listed since election night, the last time the county tabulated ballots, even though the mail brought more ballots for two days after the election and some ballots had been in the outlying drop boxes since July 30, the last time elections staff made the trip to empty them.
Stinson said she always lists the number of ballots remaining to be processed on election night as 25 because she always knows there will be some coming in, and they’ll be processed and the valid ones counted by the deadline.
Ebel said there’s no statute or administrative law governing what the counties must report for ballots yet to be processed, or how often they must update those numbers. “It’s not an exact science, just a courtesy that’s provided.”
Hardy said candidates in close races deserved to know how many ballots remain out to determine whether they have a chance of moving on from the primary. It doesn’t matter in her race against Republican incumbent Sen. Shelly Short, which only has two candidates. But a close contest for second and third in the county commissioner’s race could be affected by the late ballots, and write-in candidate Teresa Jenkins is waiting to find out if she’ll get the required 1 percent of the votes to qualify for the November ballot.
Jenkins, an independent, is running against Galvan, a Republican who was unopposed on the primary ballot.