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Updated: Ever wonder how ballots are counted? Process may surprise you

Robin Atkins wrote this article two years ago. It's an excellent description of the operations of the elections office so we thought it would be helpful to post it again. 

As a recently hired employee of the county elections department, working on an on-call, temporary basis to handle ballots, I’m writing to tell you how impressed I am with the whole process, with the care and intensely double-triple-checked methods by which your votes are counted.

Here is an outline of how your ballot gets processed and counted. Ballots arrive in the office in a locked, tagged container, which is opened in the presence of a witness who co-signs arrival documents.

An employee, well-trained in handwriting analysis, checks the signature on the outer envelope to be sure it matches your voter registration signature. If it does not match, steps are taken to contact you. If the signature matches, your ballot is combined with others received at the same time. Documents listing the batch number and quantity follow it throughout the remaining steps. At the same time it is recorded in the county’s permanent records that you voted.

Working in teams of two, I and the other temporary clerks, taking one batch of ballots at a time, open the outer envelope, remove the blue sleeve, remove the ballot from the sleeve, and band the envelopes and sleeves (marked with the batch number); these are saved for possible future reference.

We then open the ballots, examining each one for possible issues in further processing. For example, ballots filled out with pencil, might not be accurately scanned by the machine, and must be processed separately. We have a thick guide book to help us determine valid, countable votes. Ballots where your intended vote is not clear are separated for further attention.

It’s important to note that once the outer envelopes and ballots are separated, it is no longer possible, by any means, to determine the identity of the voter on any given ballot. Most ballots are fine (marked correctly and undamaged). These are fed into a machine, associated with a dedicated (non-web-connected) computer, which counts the votes and prepares a summary. The machine is programmed to flag write-in votes, changed votes, and over-votes. All such votes are later individually examined by us clerks to insure valid tabulation.

The few ballots which arrive in damaged condition or have some other factor that would make them unreadable by the machine, are tracked by batch number, date, resolution channel, and signatures of the two clerks in the team that identified them. They are hand processed later by professionals in the department. After being read by the machine, the ballots are bundled by batch number, and saved for possible future reference, such as a recount.

Here is something I didn’t know. Each day we worked processing your ballots, we were observed by volunteers from the public, who came to watch, insuring that we were careful, thorough, and above-board every step of the way. I am impressed and grateful that volunteers (representing all parties) kept an eye on us, and hope it’s also true for election offices around the country. We were also observed one of the days by a state elections auditor.

After handling ballots for the past two elections, I see that the permanent employees of our county elections office know their jobs well, are efficient and thorough, and constantly maintain their goals of respect for confidentiality and accurately counting every valid vote. They train and supervise us well.

I thank the professionals, the clerks, and the volunteers for their dedication to our democratic voting process.

Robin Atkins sent in an update for 2020:

2020 update.... If we were careful two years ago, we are twice as careful with this year's General Election ballots!

1.) The dedicated computer, which has tabulated your votes for the past two weeks as we get the ballots processed, is locked. Nobody can see how many votes any particular candidate has received (NOBODY) yet, because the computer is locked until 8 PM on Election Day. It will then unlock itself, and the data will be made available.

2.) An updated ballot count is posted at 5PM every day here: https://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/research/ballot-return-statistics.aspx. As of Friday, 10-30-20, over 70% of San Juan County registered voters had returned their ballots. In the 2016 General Election, we had 88.25% return!

3.) Checks on vote counting accuracy have been expanded for the 2020 General Election. For example, in addition to having observers present from any of the parties, we are recorded on a live stream video from the time we begin processing until we're finished each and every day. Anybody can view this video at any time. The scope of the video is broad (the entire room) and the quality good. This type of surveillance should make voters confident about the accuracy of ballot processing. Here's a link: https://www.sanjuanco.com/1221/Elections-Office (click on the currently-running video from this page).

4.) Covid cautions: For this General Election, because of the Pandemic, we have a double shift schedule, with only two teams (of two workers) processing ballots at a time. We wear masks and rubber gloves at all times. The County supplies these in ample quantity so that we can change both masks and gloves at regular intervals. We were instructed not to come to work if we feel ill and/or have any symptoms. Also, the County installed a new air-filtration system in the room. Just like two years ago, I have no worries that in San Juan County, ALL the votes will be accurately counted. We can trust the results here. 

- Robin Atkins, San Juan Island

2 comments

  • Robin Atkins Monday, 02 November 2020 13:45 Comment Link Report

    2020 update.... If we were careful two years ago, we are twice as careful with this year's General Election ballots!

    1.) The dedicated computer, which has tabulated your votes for the past two weeks as we get the ballots processed, is locked. Nobody can see how many votes any particular candidate has received (NOBODY) yet, because the computer is locked until 8 PM on Election Day. It will then unlock itself, and the data will be made available.

    2.) An updated ballot count is posted at 5PM every day here: https://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/research/ballot-return-statistics.aspx. As of Friday, 10-30-20, over 70% of San Juan County registered voters had returned their ballots. In the 2016 General Election, we had 88.25% return!

    3.) Checks on vote counting accuracy have been expanded for the 2020 General Election. For example, in addition to having observers present from any of the parties, we are recorded on a live stream video from the time we begin processing until we're finished each and every day. Anybody can view this video at any time. The scope of the video is broad (the entire room) and the quality good. This type of surveillance should make voters confident about the accuracy of ballot processing. Here's a link: https://www.sanjuanco.com/1221/Elections-Office (click on the currently-running video from this page).

    4.) Covid cautions: For this General Election, because of the Pandemic, we have a double shift schedule, with only two teams (of two workers) processing ballots at a time. We wear masks and rubber gloves at all times. The County supplies these in ample quantity so that we can change both masks and gloves at regular intervals. We were instructed not to come to work if we feel ill and/or have any symptoms. Also, the County installed a new air-filtration system in the room.

    Just like two years ago, I have no worries that in San Juan County, ALL the votes will be accurately counted. We can trust the results here.

  • Marjory Stanley Saturday, 25 August 2018 10:14 Comment Link Report

    Thank you for your careful explanation of the vote counting process in San Juan County. I think our county does a good job in registering eligible voters and counting ballot results in each election. I am just appalled that only 52% of those eligible to vote voted! Why not 95% or more? Where are half of the ballots that were sent out? Probably in the recycle bin where they do little good for our local citizens. Please be sure to vote in the November 6 election!!!

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