Looking ahead to the election, answering your questions

At the Pierce County Elections Center, staff confirm ballots have the correct information to be counted accurately. (Credit: Pierce County Auditor's Office)
At the Pierce County Elections Center, staff confirm ballots have the correct information to be counted accurately. (Credit: Pierce County Auditor's Office)



The skepticism in how elections work and their accuracy has become a hot topic on social media, at the dinner table and in the news. 

Kyle Haugh, Pierce County elections manager, said since 2016 there has been a spike in interest in how elections are administered. 

“I think when elections are closer, people get more excitable, and they look to the referees to see what’s going on,” Haugh said. “If you have a close football game, you have a close baseball game, you look at the refs. Well, we’re the refs when it comes to counting ballots.”

Below are three questions that listeners asked about election integrity. 

How often are voter logs checked, verified and cleaned up?

In Washington, the Secretary of State maintains one statewide voter registration database that was implemented in 2006, according to the Secretary of State’s website. Counties help that office keep this information up-to-date. 

A lot of information for a voter can change over time, and that matters, because, for example, voters’ addresses impact what propositions or candidates they might decide on. 

The Pierce County Elections Center has 13 full-time employees, six of whom are dedicated to updating the voter roll. They do that year-round.

“Every single day, five days a week, 40 hours a week, we’ve got employees dedicated to just constantly touching voter rolls,” Haugh said.

Pierce County Auditor Linda Farmer said the office affirmed or updated information for more than half of the county’s active voters last year. 

Even if voters forget to reach out to, say, update their addresses, there are other ways the county can update voter information. For example, elections offices can utilize data from the Department of Licensing and the United States Postal Service. 

“We’re always looking for ways,” Haugh said. “We’re checking obituaries every single day for when people pass away.”

Stuart Holmes, the Washington state elections director, predicts questions about the voter registration database will be some of the most common his office gets this fall. 

While a voter can become inactive, it takes quite a few steps to actually remove someone from the voter database. 

“That voter isn’t just immediately removed from the voter roll, they go into inactive status,” Holmes said. 

That can mean there are inactive voters on the voter rolls. Those people do not get mail-in ballots. For someone who is not that voter to request a ballot for that inactive voter, that person would be committing a felony.

“Then they would have to receive a ballot, sign it and return it to an election official in which it would not be counted, because the signature would have no way of matching, which is a second felony,” Holmes said.

Washington is one of a number of states that use the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, a system that helps states communicate about their voter database by collecting information from the Social Security Administration and the United States Postal Service, as well as from voter and motor vehicle registrations from participating states, according to its website. Reports produced from ERIC help states track inaccurate and potential cases of illegal voting. 

The tool is a way for the state to ensure someone isn’t voting in multiple states, Holmes said. That is illegal.

A number of laws passed in the most recent Washington legislative session regarding elections administration, including ones that streamline the change of address process.

“The amount of illegal voting that occurs is incredibly rare, like significantly, incredibly rare,” Holmes said.

How is quality control implemented to help guarantee the accuracy of mail-in ballots around the state? 

There are a number of checks in place to make sure that ballots are protected and counted accurately.  

For example, every ballot has an ID, which is unique to the voter the ballot is issued to. Elections workers compare a voter’s signature on that ballot to the signature on record. If it doesn’t match or if there isn’t a signature, that ballot is set aside and not counted. Elections workers will then contact that person, who would have to confirm, with their signature, their vote. Only then would that ballot be tabulated. 

So, what happens if someone tries to vote twice in the county? Pierce County auditor Linda Farmer said the short answer is you can’t. 

The first ballot is the one of record, Farmer said, “Then the other one, we pull that aside, and then we make sure that that is not counted.”

If voters tried to vote twice by mailing in their ballot and then claiming they needed a replacement ballot at an in-person voting center, staff would be able to see they did already return a ballot. In Washington, this website run by the Secretary of State’s Office, tracks ballots, so voters can see if they already voted in case they forgot, or, if there’s a problem with their ballot. 

This fall, the Secretary of State’s Office will oversee a statewide risk-limiting audit, which, according to the website Verified Voting uses verifiable paper ballots to ensure the tabulation of ballots and reported election results were correct. 

The state did one of these for the presidential primary with almost 20 counties participating. Holmes said it showed a one in 5 billion chance that the outcome was incorrect. 

While Washington is a vote-by-mail state, there are options for people who prefer to vote in-person or do not have a traditional or permanent mailing address. There are voting centers open on election day. You can find those nearest you here.

Washington state law also allows different options for people without a permanent address. For example, a cross street can serve as a residential address. People in jail but otherwise eligible to vote can receive a ballot in the mail. 

Why is Washington a vote-by-mail state?  It had become standard that 50% of voters were requesting a permanent absentee ballot and that most other voters weren’t voting, Holmes said.

“It was decided at that point in time to consolidate and mail everybody a ballot directly to their house,” Holmes said.

The Washington Legislature began requiring vote-by-mail in all counties in 2011.

What oversight measures are utilized at the county level to ensure the integrity of the vote-counting system? 

Again, ballots have unique IDs that match the voter, so someone cannot just stuff a ballot box with a bunch of ballots, Haugh said.

“We’re not just gonna count it, it’s got to have an envelope ID,” Haugh said. “So, it has to have a unique identifier and it has to have a signature that matches the registration record.”

Every county has trained ballot observers on behalf of the Democrats and Republicans. Some counties, like Pierce, also have observers to represent the independents. These trained community members observe ballot processing. That’s called tabulation. 

“Every time that we’re open processing ballots, we invite them to come in and observe what’s going on,” Farmer said. 

Also, any member of the public can observe this process from spaces within the building that allow you to see inside the ballot processing center. Observing is also accessible online in some counties.

“We know that we can trust that process, and there’s somebody out there watching,” Farmer said.

The tabulators are the machines that tally up votes. Those machines are air gapped, meaning they have never been and are not connected to the internet, which prevents outside interference. In fact, the room the tabulators are in can only be accessed by seven county staff. The auditor is not one of them.

Mail-in ballots can be returned to drop boxes. There are measures in place to ensure those and the ballots they contain are not tampered with. 

The boxes weigh between 600 and 1,000 pounds, and the smaller ones are bolted to the ground. Teams of two paid employees, who are specially trained, pick up the ballots from these boxes. These staff have to sign an oath every time they empty a ballot box, and the ballots are tracked via GPS. Observers also can watch ballot collection.

“Politics may be partisan, but elections administration is not,”

For the 2024 presidential primary in Walla Walla County, there was a hand recount after a discrepancy in totals from the reporting system the county uses to share results with the Secretary of State, according to the Union Bulletin.

Scott Peters, a Walla Walla resident, shared the process as an example of how much he trusts the system to get it right. 

“I believe that there is an extreme amount of integrity in the mail-in voting system,” Peters said. 

Editor note: The news team here at Northwest Public Broadcasting recently completed an audience survey. We asked what questions you have about elections. The team has begun working to answer those questions. Some of them, we might answer by emailing or calling the person that sent them in. Others, particularly ones that come up multiple times, we might answer in reporting for our audiences. To learn more about how we plan to cover elections, check out our election homepage here. You can always send questions or story ideas to [email protected].