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Washington elections are a long process, start to finish

King County Election official Joseph Emanuel loads ballots  after collecting them from a drop box in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
King County Election official Joseph Emanuel loads ballots after collecting them from a drop box in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
From staff reports

In Washington, Election Day is a misnomer.

In the state’s all-mail balloting system, registered voters get their ballots delivered to their legal residence about 18 days before the deadline for returning them, and local election officials continue to count properly cast ballots that arrive for as many as three weeks after that deadline.

Election Month-or-So is more accurate but will probably never catch on.

The process takes longer than those 39 days because ballots have to be prepared and printed, placed in envelopes and mailed to voters in mid-October. But once they arrive in the mailbox, ballots can be marked, sealed and returned any time before 8 p.m. on the final day of voting, which for general elections is the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

They can be mailed and postmarked – with the state picking up the postage – or deposited in a drop box before that 8 p.m. deadline. Each county elections office selects its drop box locations, and recent laws have increased the number required.

Ballots are placed in two envelopes, and the outer envelope must be signed and dated by the voter. That signature is checked by staff at the county elections office, which causes some voters to wonder if elections workers know how they vote, but the process is designed to prevent that.

Election workers compare the signature to the one in the registration files. If it doesn’t match, the unopened ballot is set aside while the voter is contacted and given a chance to come in, show identification and correct the file.

If it matches, election workers remove the inner envelope, unopened and with the ballot still inside, and place it in a basket full of unopened inner envelopes that are opened separately. At that point the marked ballots – a few might actually be blank, but people who sent those will still get credit for participating in the election – are scanned by a computer.

The paper ballots are saved and stored for 22 months after federal elections and at least 60 days for local elections, in case any challenges to the results arise. Those ballots help protect Washington elections from people or groups that want to interfere with them, state Elections Director Lori Augino said.

In 2019, the state switched to a new computerized system for registration, VoteWA, because the old system was no longer able to be updated with new technology to ensure its security, Augino said.

The state also has an extensive, regularly updated firewall designed to identify and stop attempts to invade the registration system. Most of those attempts are what Justin Burns, the office’s chief information security officer, calls standard “internet space junk” that any American company with an online presence sees. The majority come from China, Russia and Ukraine. The elections offices are also on the alert for phishing campaigns in emails that are “spoofed” to look like they come from people the offices regularly deal with.

“We’re more targeted by email than anything else,” Burns said. So far, none have been successful, “knock on wood.”

Hacking into Washington elections to change the results would be difficult, because the system is decentralized, Augino said. It’s not run by the state, but by each of the 39 individual counties, and their tabulating machines are not connected to the internet. The machines are also tested before and after an election to make sure they are properly counting ballots, and representatives of both parties are allowed to observe.

Washington has a Security Operations Center for elections in the Secretary of State’s office and is part of a system operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to analyze and share information about attacks on elections departments.

“There are new protections that need to be continually put in place,” Augino said.

Voter registration rolls are online, as that’s one of the ways Washington residents can sign up or update their information. But voters can always check VoteWA to make sure their address is correct in the weeks before ballots are mailed out, and check to make sure it arrived at the the local elections office a few days after they return it. Voters can report problems with either to the elections office.

Shortly after an 8 p.m. deadline, county elections offices tally the ballots that they’ve opened and scanned, and the public gets its first look at the results. Unlike the days of poll site voting, when the counties updated results throughout the night and into the next morning as more precincts turned in their ballots and the computers counted them, the results of all ballots that have been processed that night come in that single report, with updates over the next several days.

For most elections, that first count is about half the ballots that will eventually be tallied, because ballots that arrived by mail that afternoon and those deposited in drop boxes that evening usually can’t be verified, opened and scanned that same day.

Also, because some voters procrastinate to learn a little more about the candidates for a particular office, or study more facts about a particular ballot issue, the largest number of ballots are often mailed on that final day, which means they arrive on Wednesday or Thursday and have to be processed.

As long as a mailed ballot is properly postmarked, it can be processed and counted up the time the local canvassing board meets to certify the election.

In most elections, the results from that first night don’t change much as more ballots are counted. But in close elections, it’s not unusual for a candidate who was slightly behind the first night to inch closer or pull ahead in later counts, or for the lead to move back and forth for the next three weeks.

By state law, the ballots of any race that is closer than one-half of 1% are automatically recounted by the computers, and any race that is closer than one-fourth of 1% is automatically recounted by hand.

A losing candidate who questions the results – regardless of how close they are – can also demand a recount of all the ballots or just specific precincts. But he or she would have to pay the costs of that recount unless it changes the outcome of the election.

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