The process of registering to vote and casting a ballot in Washington state has several distinctive features, which can create some confusion after a resident moves to a new address from either within state borders or from another state with different electoral laws. Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, who’s served 20 years in the office and is among the longest-serving elected auditors in the state, provided a list of common misunderstandings in the process, from applying for a ballot through casting it.
Simply updating your address with the U.S. Postal Service or with the Department of Licensing isn’t enough to ensure you’ll get the correct ballot delivered to your door prior to Election Day.
The easiest way to update your address after a move is to notify your county auditor online. Washington voters can do so by visiting voter.votewa.gov. Updating your address online is available until the week before Election Day, and then again two or three weeks after the date ballots are due.
If voters prefer, they can contact their auditor’s office by phone or in person to update their address. A full list of county auditor offices in Washington is available by visiting the Secretary of State’s website at sos.wa.gov and clicking on the “County Auditors” link.
While county auditors prefer Washington-issued ID cards, they aren’t necessary in order to register to vote in an election in the state if the person registers in person.
Prospective voters will be required to submit the last four digits of their Social Security number if they don’t have a valid Washington ID card, and they must sign an affidavit attesting they are a citizen of the United States, have lived in Washington for 30 days, are at least 18 at the time a ballot is cast and have no restrictions on their ability to vote because of a felony conviction or court order.
If you’re registering to vote at a registration drive, take a few extra moments to make sure your handwriting is legible. Election workers check names and Social Security numbers against databases to ensure a potential voter is who they say they are, and being unable to read handwriting can slow or end that process.
Dalton said the easiest rule is to print. Don’t assume that a worker will be able to read your cursive.
While voters must be 18 in order to cast an official ballot, those interested in voting may register at age 16 or 17 in order to ensure they’ll receive their ballot on their first Election Day.
If your 18th birthday falls on an Election Day, you’ll have to visit an elections office in person in order to cast your ballot. Officials are not allowed to mail out ballots to prospective voters under the age of 18.
Whether you’re walking into an Elections Office trying to register at the last minute or in line to drop off your ballot in the waning seconds before the 8 p.m. cutoff, the deadline applies only to beginning the process of voting, not completing it, Dalton said.
That means you can show up to the office on Election Day a few minutes before 8 p.m. and, as long as you’ve started your registration paperwork, you’ll be given a ballot that will count in that election. The same is true if you arrive at a ballot dropbox just as the clock strikes 8 and there’s a line of cars or people waiting to deposit their votes.
“The same thing used to apply at poll sites, we would mark the end of the line,” Dalton said. “We do the same thing with cars on election night that are lining up to drop them into the bins.”
Leaving one of the races blank on a ballot will not invalidate your votes. Election officials track the number of ballots in each contest that have no choice marked and consider those “under votes,” a category that is included in official results published by county auditors.
“Not voting is a legitimate response by the voter,” Dalton said.
Whether you vote in one contest, multiple contests, all of the races or none of them, the elections office counts your votes and includes them in the official results of the election. (The office also counts what are known as “blank ballots,” or those with zero markings at all, that arrive in their office – there were 35 such ballots out of 112,094 cast in the August primary in Spokane County.)
While election officials prefer your ballot to be sealed in the yellow, unidentifiable envelope that comes as part of your elections packet in the mail, forgetting to do so won’t invalidate your votes.
Workers are instructed, if it appears the ballot is not within the security envelope as a mailing is opened, to place the votes in one themselves in an effort to protect the anonymity of the voter, Dalton said.
“We will rescue you from yourself,” she said.
This policy also prevents another misconception that voters may have about elections staff: They know how you voted. There are no identifying marks on the ballot itself, meaning staff responsible for tallying votes has no way of knowing who voted for whom.
Election workers check all signatures of submitted ballots against a database of signatures from voters’ driver’s license registration forms.
Not a sampling, Dalton said. All of them.
Failing to sign the outside of the envelope is the surest way for your ballot not to be counted in the upcoming election. The Washington Secretary of State’s Office allows voters to check the status of their ballot by visiting the website mentioned above, voter.votewa.gov. Head there if you’re worried you might have forgotten.
County auditors in Washington collect an address, a name and a birth date for each individual voter that may then be released to candidates or political parties that ask for them. They also have records about how often you’ve submitted a ballot.
If a voter is receiving phone calls or emails from a party or candidate, that information was received from another source, Dalton said. But, if you’re looking to stop those phone calls and end the mailers arriving at your home, the sure way to do so is to cast a ballot, she said. Candidates and campaigns are notified of when your ballot is received and it’s unlikely they’ll continue to send you reminders once your ballot is in.
Your ballot must be postmarked by Election Day. When dropping your ballot in the mail on Election Day, make sure there’s a pickup scheduled after the time you drop it off. If not, the mail won’t be collected until the following day and your ballot won’t count.
Dalton and her office worried that the advent of free postage for ballots in 2018 might mean more people dropping their ballots in the mail for the first time and forgetting to check whether their ballot would be postmarked on time. In August, 981 ballots out of 112,094 cast were postmarked too late, which equates to about 0.9% of ballots cast. Dalton said it’s typical to see that number between 0.5% and 1%.
If you don’t know when the pickup time is for a particular mailbox, consider taking it to a local library or ballot drop-off location, just in case. Ballots dropped off in those official election ballot boxes will count as long as you drop it in by 8 p.m. on election day. You can find a list of those locations on your county auditor’s website.