County auditor explains the process
More than previous elections, residents of Okanogan County have been calling the auditor’s office to ask questions about protecting their vote during the upcoming Nov. 3 general election – and Auditor Cari Hall is delighted.
“The volume in calls has increased. Actually I’m really happy about that,” said Hall, whose duties as auditor include supervising elections. “If people have questions or concerns, we are more than willing to talk.”
Voters throughout the nation are more concerned than usual about making sure their ballot is counted during the coming election. Voter anxiety is being fed by false and misleading information promoted by the Trump administration about the potential for voter fraud with mail-in voting. And changes to the U.S. Postal Service initiated by the Trump administration have raised concerns about the Postal Service’s ability to deliver ballots on time.
Hall and her staff are working to assure voters that their ballots are secure and their votes will be counted just as they have in past elections.
“We’ve been doing mail-in elections in Washington for years. We are experts at it,” Hall said during an interview last week. “I have not met any election official who is not passionate about what we do.”
“We are a small community, even though we’re large geographically. It really matters to me that people vote and we get their ballots and process them,” Hall said. “Elections are fun, and they’re stressful. The bottom line is we are carrying out the process in which people get a voice and get a vote.”
Hall got her passion for elections from her mother, Mila Jury, who supervised elections in Okanogan County for 43 years before retiring at the end of 2018. “I’m 50, so for 43 years of my life I grew up with a mom who was very enthusiastic about elections,” Hall said. When Hall, who is a Republican, was elected county auditor in 2019, “I felt like I was carrying on her legacy.”
Among the callers to the auditor’s office this year are many people “asking if they can bring their ballot to our office [in Okanogan],” Hall said. “Absolutely! There are three election staff people and me here. They can put their ballots in our hands. I take it back to the vault and lock it up and they know it’s there. We want to make sure people feel safe and comfortable in voting. If they feel more secure bringing it to our office and to us, that’s fine.”
Ballots can be hand-delivered to the auditor’s office during normal hours before Election Day, and up to 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.
Ballots in the mail
Ballots will be in the mail to all registered voters in Washington by this Friday, Oct. 16, 18 days before the election as required by state law. Completed ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 3, if they are mailed. But Hall strongly advises putting them in the mail at least a week before then. Voters who want assurance that the ballot has been postmarked before or on Nov. 3 can take them to their post office and ask staff to postmark them while they watch, she said. Ballot envelopes are prepaid, so no postage is necessary.
The ballots can also be placed in a secure ballot drop box before 8 p.m. on Nov. 3. The Methow Valley has two boxes – one is in front of Twisp Town Hall on Glover Street, and the other was installed last month in front of the Red Barn in Winthrop.
With heightened concerns about mail delivery, more voters are likely to use the 11 ballot drop boxes located in communities throughout Okanogan County during this election, Hall predicted.
“Historically there hasn’t been huge use of ballot boxes. But your area [the Methow Valley] has had great use of those boxes. We’ve always picked up from the Twisp box more frequently than others,” Hall said.
Throughout the county, however, the use of drop boxes increased significantly during this year’s primary election in August, Hall said. “In the primary we had a 59% turnout rate; 35% of the ballots were from the ballot boxes.”
Expecting a significantly higher voter turnout during the general election, Hall said she and her staff will be working to make sure ballots are collected frequently from drop boxes when the 18-day voting period begins Oct. 16.
“I met with my election supervisor and said, ‘I think we need to up our game and check them more frequently, because we want to get those processed.’ I don’t want those ballots sitting in the box for any length of time. As an added security, we can check them much more frequently. We have worked it out. We have a schedule.”
The ballot boxes are reinforced steel containers with a slit just large enough to slip a ballot through, like a slot for letters in a post office. They are white with red and blue lettering and are labeled “Official Ballot Drop Box,” and are placed in secure, accessible locations.
When ballots need to be collected, Hall said, two elections staff members (because there are always two people handling ballots) open the boxes and transfer ballots into other boxes that lock and have logs and seals to document the collection, and then transport them to the auditor’s office.
Sign the envelope
Voters mark their ballots and place them in a pink security envelope, which protects the secrecy of their ballot. The voter puts the security envelope inside the yellow postage-paid return envelope, which they must sign and date. “It’s imperative that people sign and date it,” Hall said. Lack of signatures, or signatures that don’t match those on file, are the most common reason for ballots not being counted, she said.
After ballots arrive at the auditor’s office – whether by mail, from drop boxes, or by hand-delivery – processing begins. It is a multi-step process that is not completed until the election is certified 21 days after the election.
The envelope with the ballot inside is quickly scanned and recorded on the state website – votewa.gov – as received by the auditor’s office, Hall said. “We have a 24-hour rule – it will be marked as received within 24 hours. You can see that we’ve received it.”
Voters can go to votewa.gov to track their ballots. The website asks for name and birth date, and will then provide information on the status of a voter’s ballot, including whether it has been received, and whether it lacks a signature.
After recording envelopes as received, election staff members – always working in pairs – take envelopes to a secure vault where they count them and keep a paper tally and a computer record. After being physically counted, envelopes are kept in the vault. No tabulation of ballots occurs until after 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.
By Oct. 21, Hall will bring in “inspection boards” to begin inspecting ballots. Inspection boards are comprised of community members “who want to be a part of the process,” Hall said. “We train them and pay them to come in and process ballots. They are technically not my staff. They are citizens, temporary employees.”
The first job of inspection board members is checking for signatures on envelopes and comparing them to those in the voter registration file. Two inspection board members have been trained through the Washington State Patrol fraud signature training program to check signatures, and examine signatures to determine if they match those on file.
Live video for observers
The Okanogan County Auditor’s office will have a new live video feed for citizens to observe ballot inspection boards for the November general election. The link will be available on the elections tab of the auditor’s page on the county’s website at: okanogancounty.org/auditor/elections/elections. Ballots will be mailed by Oct. 16. Voters who have not received a ballot by Oct. 23 should contact the auditor’s office at (509) 422-7240.
If there are still uncertainties about the validity of a signature, an elections staff member will review it. Hall and three of her staff members have also received fraud signature training. If there are still questions, envelopes are set aside to be examined later by a canvassing board, which is the only body with the authority to discard a ballot.
When signatures are missing or in question, Hall said her office works hard to contact the voters by mail and phone. The votewa.gov site will also let voters know if their signature is missing or in question. “If your elections department is reaching out to you and you don’t respond, that’s how your ballot doesn’t get counted,” Hall said. “Work with us so that together we can make sure your ballot is counted.”
Watch inspections online
In every election, citizens ask to watch the ballot inspection process, Hall said. “We’ve always allowed people to come in and observe. We’ve always encouraged it.”
With the intensity of interest in the general election this year, Hall decided to make the process open to anyone who wants to watch by installing cameras at her office that will provide live video of the inspection boards on her website. The link will become active on Oct. 21, when the boards begin work.
“I’m extremely excited. I want people to be able to see the process, and they’ll have faith in the process. We want to be as transparent as possible. You will be able to watch inspection board members inspecting ballots,” Hall said.
“We’ve always had observers. But we are very limited on space, so this year was a perfect time to roll out those cameras.”
If the signature on the ballot is determined to be valid, inspection board members open the outer yellow envelope and separate it from the inner pink security envelope. The yellow envelopes are removed and stored securely.
Once the yellow and pink envelopes are separated, there is no way of connecting the voter’s ballot to the envelope it arrived in. That guarantees the secrecy of the vote, Hall said.
Voters may notice a hole in the pink envelope. That is to ensure that no ballot is inadvertently left in an envelope. Elections staff put a string through the holes in the envelopes, and count the envelopes to make sure they match the number of ballots in the batch they are processing.
Inspection board members then begin inspecting the ballots. Voters mark ballots in many different ways, sometimes to correct errors or change their initial vote. Candidate names may have lines drawn through them, or more than one candidate may be chosen, or a ballot may be torn in a way that makes it difficult to read. The inspection board members rely on a detailed “voter intent manual,” developed by the Washington Secretary of State, to help them determine what a voter intended.
When the inspection board members complete work on a batch of ballots, the ballots are taken by election staff, working in pairs as always, back to the vault, where the ballots are scanned into a computer.
The computer, Hall emphasized, is a “stand-alone” computer. “It’s not hooked to the internet, not networked with county or auditor computers.” It’s connected only to a scanner and printer, she said. Staff members maintain a paper record of the number of ballots scanned as well, she said. Ballots are then placed in secure lockboxes with tamperproof seals in the vault, Hall said.
Getting the results
Tallying the votes does not begin until after 8 p.m. on election night. At that point, the elections staff puts the ballot information stored on the scanning computer onto a flash drive provided by the Washington Secretary of State’s office specifically for that one-time use. The drive is inserted into a tallying computer, which counts the votes in the different races.
Following the computer tally on election night, a random audit is conducted by hand count within 48 hours of Election Day on several precincts selected by representatives of each political party, who come to observe the count. That process is open for public observation and is advertised with a legal notice in the newspaper.
“If there’s any discrepancy, which there never has been … I would demand a hand count of the whole election,” Hall said. “If you’re off by one, I’d want to know why.”
The election tally numbers are put up on the auditor’s website and the Secretary of State’s website. But tallying continues after Election Day, because ballots continue arriving in the mail. Ballots are counted every three days after Election Day until all ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 are counted. The auditor might receive 2,000-3,000 ballots in the mail after Nov. 3, Hall said.
In the meantime, the county election canvass board meets at least twice, Hall said. The canvass board’s job is to make the final determination on ballots where questions about the voter signature or voter intent remain. The board is comprised of the county commission chairman, the county prosecutor and the county auditor, or people designated by them. All board members have had signature fraud training as well.
The canvas board will make the final decision on questions of signature or voter intent. Any ballot that is rejected has been reviewed by at least seven people – county elections staff, the inspection board and the canvas board – before the decision is made, Hall said. On the 21st day after the election, the canvas board certifies the results of the election.