Kitsap County Elections workers manually recount ballots from the hotly contested state Senate race in the 26th Legislative District in 2018. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News 2018)

Kitsap County Elections workers manually recount ballots from the hotly contested state Senate race in the 26th Legislative District in 2018. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News 2018)

Kitsap’s auditor isn’t losing sleep over election count process

Experience, safeguards ensure a smooth process next month, Andrews says

By Mike De Felice

Special to the Bainbridge Island Review

One person not losing sleep over potential voter fraud in Kitsap County is the official responsible for overseeing the Nov. 3 general election vote-counting process: Auditor Paul Andrews.

Andrews was blunt in his assessment of the ballot-counting operation: “We know what we are doing.”

He said voters should rest easy: “[This] is an important election for the voters and the county but we administer elections like this all the time.”

Paul Andrews, Kitsap County Auditor

Paul Andrews, Kitsap County Auditor

Voter fraud is a frequent topic discussed in the media. Concern over fraudulent ballots coming from foreign countries, people voting more than once, discarded ballots, dead people voting, and the post office being unprepared to handle the high number of mail-in ballots are on the list of nightmare scenarios being played out by political pundits.

But instead of being a hot spot for these disruptions, most election officials regionally and nationally are looking to this state and others with a history of conducting by-mail voting operations to lead the way.

Washington is one of five states in the pre-COVID-19 era that has voted entirely by mail. But now, spurred by the pandemic, at least three-quarters of all American voters will be eligible to receive a ballot in the mail for the election — the most in U.S. history, according to a New York Times analysis.

The Evergreen State transitioned to mail-in voting about 10 years ago. Before that, voters had to wait in line at their polling place on Election Day, often at a school gymnasium or community center, and step into a booth to cast their votes.

But after years of experience with mail-in voting and improvements to safety protocols over time, Andrews is confident every voter’s ballot will be accurately counted and that no voting fraud will take place.

“We have had ten years of doing this. It has just become second nature,” he said.

Voting twice? Nearly impossible

It would be hard — actually, nearly impossible — to vote twice in the state of Washington because of the vote management system that connects all counties statewide, the auditor said. “Once we have issued you a ballot that you have returned, your status [showing you have voted] is updated for the entire state.”

For example, if someone in King County was issued a ballot and mailed it in, and then the person went to Kitsap, registered and tried to vote again here, the ballot would be rejected because the statewide voting system would show the person already voted in King County, he said.

Harry Turnbull, extra help lead with the Kitsap County Elections Division, sends a batch of ballot envelopes through a processing reader prior to counting the ballots inside. (Bob Smith | Kitsap News Group 2018)

Harry Turnbull, extra help lead with the Kitsap County Elections Division, sends a batch of ballot envelopes through a processing reader prior to counting the ballots inside. (Bob Smith | Kitsap News Group 2018)

As for the claim that meddlers in another country could mail in thousands of false ballots, Andrews said: “That is my favorite question. For the United States, there are about 10,000 election officials like me. We don’t do things the same way.”

Each voting jurisdiction uses different paper, envelopes and ballots, and each has its own barcoding system. So, the efforts involved in making up false ballots would be enormous, he indicated. And in this state, the bar code system on each envelope would prevent duplicate voting, he added.

“Let’s say someone decides to photocopy a ballot a bunch of times. First, they have to get a registered voter who has not voted, and second, the barcode on the ballot is unique. Once it goes through the system, it will reject every duplicate barcode after that.”

Overwhelming the postal system

Is there concern the post office will be overburdened? “My short answer is no,” Andrews replied.

“[The post office] understands what vote-by-mail looks like. They handled the last presidential election. They are used to the volume increases that can happen.”

Kitsap County Elections workers manually recount ballots from the hotly contested state Senate race in the 26th Legislative District in 2018. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News 2018)

Kitsap County Elections workers manually recount ballots from the hotly contested state Senate race in the 26th Legislative District in 2018. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News 2018)

Throwing away ballots

Some TV hosts claim ballots in other states have been tossed in ditches and garbage cans. Andrews said, “Our elections room is not set up to allow for ballots to be thrown away.”

At the end of each shift, there is a check to ensure nothing has fallen behind a machine or under a table, he said. Election workers have their personal items placed in sealed, plastic containers so ballots couldn’t accidentally fall into a bag or purse.

Ballots are also constantly audited while being processed. “By auditing, we are counting the ballots as they come in from the post office, and we are recounting them as they are passed to different workers. If a discrepancy arises, an immediate search would begin,” he said.

“No one person is ever left alone with a ballot. We have a two-worker rule. If a ballot ever needed to move to another room, two people would need to be with the ballot during transport.”

In addition, the room where ballots are opened and counted is under video surveillance for security, he added. During the election, this video is live-streamed on the auditor’s office webpage for public viewing.

“This is important for transparency,” Andrews said of the live-streaming. “It gives you a window into what we are doing.”

Potential problems in other states

While Andrews sees the election process running smoothly locally, he is not as confident about other parts of the country.

“With other jurisdictions around the country changing how they do things, it’s concerning because now they are having to learn something new without a lot of practice. Post offices in different jurisdictions that have never had to do a vote-by-mail scenario are concerned they will be overwhelmed because it’s never happened.”

State elections officials have been working with counterparts nationwide who are facing their first vote-by-mail election, Andrews said.

County auditors across Washington state formed a task force late last year and put together the best practices for managing a vote-by-mail election, he said. State election officials then met with and discussed these practices with officials from other states.

“As COVID-19 picked up, [discussions with officials in other states] became more intensified because then they were looking at a COVID-19 scenario,” he said.

2020 turnout

Ballots will be mailed to registered voters Oct. 14.

“We will see more ballots this election than we have ever seen,” the auditor predicted, attributing the increase to population growth and increased interest in the election.

An estimated 85 percent of registered voters, or 155,000 individuals, will return their ballots this election, he said. That is the same percentage of voters overall who turned in ballots during the last presidential election — but an increase from 136,000 voters, he said.

Voters can track the progress of their returned ballot by logging on to VoteWA.gov. The Kitsap County Elections Division website can be accessed at kitsapgov.com/auditor/Pages/elections.aspx.

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