Auditor Says Pierce County Sets the Standard for Mail-in and Drop Box Voting

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With over a decade of experience, Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson knows a thing or two about running elections. Other states look to Washington as a leader in safely voting by mail or drop box and particularly Pierce County, Anderson told the KP News.

“When you return your ballot, we’re looking for two things: that you signed your oath and that it’s most likely you who signed it, and we’re also looking at the barcode, to make sure you haven’t already returned a ballot,” she said. “Your neighbor could steal your mail, could hijack your ballot, and could Xerox it 20 times and return 20 ballots, but only one is going to get counted and that’s the one that’s returned in the envelope that we provided.”

The outer return envelope has the signed affidavit of the voter swearing they are qualified to vote and a bar code that is a unique voter identification. A sorter machine records the bar code and photographs the signature. Election employees compare that signature to the registration signature on file.

“If a signature is questionable, we have a second pair of eyes to look at it. There are always two election workers looking at the signature together and they must agree,” Anderson said. “If they don’t agree, it will move up to another, more experienced set of eyes.”

The staff inspecting signatures is trained by the Washington State Patrol fraud division.

“Anybody can walk into the Pierce County Election Center at any hour live ballots are handled; can look in the glass-enclosed hallway and directly see incoming ballots, ballot processing and tabulation,” Anderson said.

In addition, a closed circuit camera system with over 10 different motion-activated cameras in the election center records everything that happens, all handled by a security department outside the auditor’s office. The live video becomes part of the permanent election archives.

Voters can look online to see if their ballot was received and accepted.

“If people are concerned, they can call us and we’re happy to research it for them, or they can go online to vote.wa.gov and check their ballot status,” Anderson said. “It will show accepted, rejected; it will also show the date that we prepared the ballots to mail to them.”

Anderson said it’s important to vote early.

“Election day is a deadline, it’s not an activity.”

For the August primary, the county would ordinarily see about a 30% voter turnout, though the Auditor’s Office expected it to go as high as 35% this year.

“We had a 51.9% turnout,” Anderson said. “That’s huge.”

Ballots need to be postmarked by election day in Washington, which was Aug. 4 for the primary.

“But we got hundreds and hundreds of ballots marked Aug. 5,” Anderson said. “You’ve got to look at the pickup time for that blue mailbox, but even that time is no guarantee the post office is going to give it a cancellation stamp that day. This is one of the reasons we encourage people to make their way to one of our 47 election drop boxes.”

Election drop boxes are secure and a better choice for many voters, Anderson said.

“Pierce County is a gold medal winner in this regard and received national recognition for our work,” she said. “We partnered with a metal fabrication company and custom-designed our drop boxes. They’re made out of quarter-inch folded steel and set in concrete. We’ve had people accidentally hit them, but the vehicle and driver were the losers.”

Drop boxes are always located in public places that have good lighting and visibility, like fire stations and libraries, and places with closed-circuit camera systems, she said. But even there, voting early is better. Eighty percent of the primary ballots at drop boxes were returned in the final 48 hours of the election, slowing down the final results.

“We pick up ballots from the drop box every 48 hours during the 18-day voting period and then, as the election nears, daily,” Anderson said. “On election day we pick up from the drop boxes multiple times a day.”

In a statement to media, Anderson also said “President Trump’s remarks about not funding the USPS are not relevant to our November election here in Washington State. We are not depending upon any new USPS budget authority. Our system of outbound and inbound election mail is well-tested and relies only upon ordinary postal operations.”