“Election Integrity Counts”: Columnist Examines Ballot Operations in Washington State

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[Image courtesy of all-flags-world]

As we approach Election Day 2015 and look ahead to the 2016 election cycle, it’s common to hear complaints about the way that the media covers the nitty-gritty of election administration. Process- versus outcome-driven stories are always a tough assignment, and as a result you often get far more coverage of who’s on the ballots than the work involved in preparing them. But every now and then, there’s an article that hits the spot so nicely that it’s too good not to share.

So it is with a recent column by Sue Lani Madsen of the Spokesman-Review, who recently attended ballot observer training in Washington State and wrote a really nice piece (“Election Integrity Counts”) about the experience and what she learned:

Envelopes everywhere. That’s what you see when you walk into the Spokane County Elections Office a week after ballots start to arrive.

It seems like chaos until you complete Elections Observer Training, and even then the activity is visually overwhelming. Ballots must be signature-verified, sorted, opened, checked for machine readability, occasionally duplicated, and finally tabulated.

Election integrity is critical to combating voter cynicism. Washington statutes provide for systematic involvement of election observers representing major political parties. County auditors may also request observers be appointed by candidates or other organizations. While the workers in the elections office handling the ballots are employees, the observers are volunteers, taking turns sitting quietly in two-hour blocks of time over four to six weeks.

On one level, it seems about as exciting as watching paint dry. “You mean I sit there and watch somebody open envelopes?” said one new volunteer at training on Thursday. She had always voted but never really paid any attention to the mechanics. Neither had I, so this week I attended Elections Observer Training in both Lincoln and Spokane counties.

The general processes are the same in all counties, whether small rural or major metropolitan. Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman provides specific guidance with a flow chart for ballot handling at each stage. The difference is in the tools. Spokane has a large sorting machine and a mechanical envelope cutter. Lincoln County has Eileen, Joyce and Ann with a letter opener. [emphasis added]

Ballots must be prepared for each legislative district plus various combinations of school, fire, library, cemetery, water and other special-purpose districts requiring 534 different ballot templates in Spokane County alone. Occasionally, errors are made. Recently, the Spokane County Elections Office mailed “supplemental official ballots for the November 3, 2015, General Election to 372 voters in North Spokane County” who received ballots for the wrong water district. County auditors are responsible for getting you the right ballot. You are responsible for knowing what should be on your ballot.

Washington is a voter intent state, meaning every effort is made to determine what the voter meant even if the voter failed to follow directions.

It is the most subjective step in the process, more than matching voter envelope signatures to the signatures on file. If you are old enough and were paying attention, you will remember the infamous hanging chad debates of the 2000 presidential election.

That problem stemmed from a lack of consistency across the state of Florida on how to read voter intent.

“You mean people can’t just color in the oval? It’s not hard,” said a new volunteer.

Apparently it is.

Ballots come in with checkmarks, lines, circles, arrows and comments. The secretary of state provides a handbook illustrating the myriad ways to do it wrong, and how to interpret each. Inventing a new way to do it wrong will get your ballot rejected.

The step most vulnerable to manipulation or simple human error is the process of duplicating ballots. It even sounds fishy. Voters who can’t follow directions force county elections workers to create a machine-readable replacement ballot. One veteran Spokane County observer described an election where there were 15 staffed stations dedicated to duplicating ballots, with a volunteer observer seated at each table.

From picking up the ballot dropboxes each day through each step of tabulation, elections employees work on the buddy system. Per policy, no one should ever be left alone with the ballots. In reality, there may be momentary lapses. This is where elections observers are critical to uphold the integrity of the process.

Every election is different as the number of issues and the intensity of the battle between candidates fluctuates. In contentious years the Elections Office may have squads of attorneys standing by as well as the volunteer observers. The 2015 general election may lack drama, but it features decisions that have immediate impact on quality of life, from local initiatives to city council and special purpose districts.

Find your ballot, do your research and for once at least try to color in between the lines.

Madsen’s column is really great and is a nice model for similar articles elesewhere: it introduces readers to the basics of the election process while also giving them insight into the key issues and challenges (like voter intent and ballot duplication and efforts to preserve ballot integrity, plus the difference in resources available in counties big and small) that are at the heart of election operations in Washington State and elsewhere. Thanks to her for taking the time and effort to research and write this piece … here’s hoping there are other journalists out there who will give the election process the same kind of attention present here. Not only is it important for people to understand how voting works – there are some really great stories, too.

Stay tuned …

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