Ballot count requires attention to detail
By ELISABETH MURRAY
Whidbey Examiner Staff
November 7, 2012 · Updated 10:49 AM
When Greenbank resident Anne Hallam called the Island County Elections Office with a problem with her ballot, she was shocked by the instructions they gave her.
Hallam had voted, sealed the ballot inside the two envelopes, and signed her name. She then realized she had signed the envelope with her husband’s name typed on it.
“This is a really important election,” said Hallam, adding that all elections matter. “I want to make sure that my vote and my husband’s vote get counted.”
According to Michele Reagan, Island County voter registration deputy, the elections office gets a lot of calls from voters who are worried their ballot will end up being discarded.
“The most common phone call that we receive is family members that have signed each other’s envelopes,” said Reagan.
She said it is much harder for voters to make a mistake than they realize, and there are often easy solutions.
In the case of signing the wrong envelope, the family members can send their ballots in that way, and the person who signed the ballot gets credit for voting. The office checks to see the signature of the signer matches what they have on file.
Or they can cross out the signatures and provide the correct John Hancocks.
But Hallam, concerned that the bar coded ballot was linked to her name, which it is not, called back and was told that she could also open the green envelopes, swap the contents, seal and sign the correct envelope.
Concerned that the envelopes appear to be tampered with, Hallam said she plans to hand deliver the ballots to ensure that they get counted.
This is not the only time the elections office sees ballots that have been opened and resealed.
If voters decide to change their mind before the ballot has been delivered, a simple fix is to open it back up, make the change and reseal it. Reagan said the voter should write a note explaining that they reopened their envelope, and initial or sign again.
For a simple bubbling error, the instructions included with the ballot indicate that it is okay to put a single line through the incorrect choice, and fill in the desired square.
For times when it is difficult to determine what the voter wants, the workers reference the “Voter’s Intent Manual,” a 78-page guide present at each election office to make such determinations.
The election workers check each sheet and look for mistakes, as well as ballots with write-in candidates. These are separated into a different pile to be “manually resolved.”
And while some voters think it’s funny to write-in a fictional character, like Mickey Mouse, these votes still get processed like a legitimate write-in. The office sees enough of these that it has created a fictional character category.
Having to manually process these ballots takes longer – and slows down the whole process, costing taxpayers money as they pay the election workers to add a vote for Harry Potter.
For mistakes, damaged or lost ballots, voters can also call the office to have a replacement sent to them or they can print out a replacement form online. In addition to performing the regular safeguards, the printed ballots require special handling, a task that Toni Craggs, of Oak Harbor, and Dodi Hanby, of Greenbank, performed last Thursday.
As Hanby read out the mail-in voter’s choice, Craggs bubbled the selection into one of the official ballots using purple marker. The pair then verified that they had recorded the correct answers.
Printing out the ballot and mailing it in is particularly attractive to people on vacation and service members stationed overseas, said Reagan.
Once Island County ships the ballots, it has no control over how fast or slow it will reach the recipient, especially when a foreign mail service is involved, she said.
The outer green envelope and ballot are both barcoded, but for different reasons and purposes.
When the ballot arrives at the election office, the scan of the outer envelope pulls up the voter signature and the election worker compares the signature on file with the one on the envelope.
Before starting work in the election office, the workers undergo training in signature comparisons and do a refresher before each election, said department administrator for the Elections Office, Kirk Huffer.
In cases when no signature is provided or the signature does not match, the voter gets sent a letter with instructions on how to resolve the situation so that their vote gets counted.
The system also gives the voter credit for voting.
For voters curious to see if their ballot has arrived, they can hop online to the state Elections website at myvote.wa.gov and click on “Ballot Status” on the left.
The site also allows voters to access the online voters guide, with information about candidates for races only pertinent to that voter displayed. It also allows voters to update their address and find out how to return the ballot.
Voters also swear an oath when they sign the green envelope acknowledging it is a felony if they attempt to vote more than one time, and the statewide database created by Microsoft that the county is linked to reduces the chances of illegal voting in an additional county.
The barcode on the ballot identifies the candidate races and the voter’s precinct, but is not linked to the voter in any way. The bar code also blocks the ballot from accidentally being scanned twice.
The office has a really great tracking system in place once the ballots arrive at the office, Huffer said.
“From beginning to end, we can account for every ballot,” Huffer said. “It means a great deal that people trust us.”
And there are other fail safes in place to ensure ballot integrity, Reagan said.
At all stages of ballot handling, from ballot drop box pick up to scanning at least two people are present to reduce the chances of impropriety.
When the ballots get scanned to have the votes recorded, the data gets stored on computer drives that are completely disconnected from the outside world.
With no Internet connection, no one can hack into and manipulate the data.
And because of the way that the information is coded, staff members have no idea as to what the results are until they are tabulated on election night.
The public is invited to visit the office, to watch the ballot processing or ask questions about the process.
Political party observers already take advantage of this opportunity to make sure that the election workers follow proper procedures.
“The process is completely open, and we want it to be that way,” Huffer said.
Reagan said that she is happy to talk to anyone, and during working hours the doors are always open.
The more people understand, the more comfortable they are with the process, she said.
“Knowledge is a good thing,” she said. “The less mystery there is, the better everyone feels about the outcome.”