Elections Integrity and Security: Part 2
This is the second part of my two-part series on election integrity and security. This blog will review election results, the process involved in recounts, and election security measures.
Complete Election Results
All counties conduct vote-by-mail elections.
All vote-by-mail ballots (also known as absentee) are kept in secure storage while not being processed. Processing includes the verification of signatures and postmarks, removing the security envelope or sleeve from the outer envelope and removing the ballot from that inner envelope or sleeve. If not flagged as challenged or needing further signature verification, ballots may then be scanned.
Ballots are verified and scanned throughout the 18-day voting period as they are processed and accepted. Ballot scanners are not connected to the internet or other networks. No votes are counted until the end of the election after 8:00 p.m. on Election Day. Results are neither known nor reported before 8:00 p.m. on Election Day.
After 8:00 p.m. on Election Day, the county election division begins to tabulate (i.e., count) votes and preliminary election results are then made public. As additional ballots are lawfully received, including all ballots postmarked by Election Day, further results are counted and made available until the election is complete and ready for certification.
For processing incoming ballots, RCW 29A.40.110 provides, in part:
(1) The opening and subsequent processing of return envelopes for any primary or election may begin upon receipt. The tabulation of absentee ballots must not commence until after 8:00 p.m. on the day of the primary or election.
(2) All received return envelopes must be placed in secure locations from the time of delivery to the county auditor until their subsequent opening. After opening the return envelopes, the county canvassing board shall place all of the ballots in secure storage until processing. Ballots may be taken from the inner envelopes and all the normal procedural steps may be performed to prepare these ballots for tabulation.
(3) The canvassing board, or its designated representatives, shall examine the postmark on the return envelope and signature on the declaration before processing the ballot. The ballot must either be received no later than 8:00 p.m. on the day of the primary or election or must be postmarked no later than the day of the primary or election. All personnel assigned to verify signatures must receive training on statewide standards for signature verification.
Throughout the election, ballot scanners and voting systems are physically secured in locked rooms. Elections staff sign in and out each time the room is opened and always in groups of two or more.
Since 2019, the record of returned ballots that have declarations with missing or mismatched signatures must be updated each day that a county canvasses ballots, each time a voter is contacted by phone or mail, and each time a voter submits updated information. The record of non-compliant ballots and voter contacts must be sent to the Secretary of State within 48 hours, then the record will be made publicly available within 24 hours of receipt.
For very close races, depending on the specific numbers, machine recounts may be automatic or may be requested (see RCW 29A.64.011).
Some counties set up the conditions under which a recount is automatic. For example, in King County, machine recounts are required when the vote total difference between two candidates is less than 2,000 votes and also less than 0.5% of the total number of votes cast for both candidates.
When a race is even closer, hand recounts may be required. During a hand recount, county staff reviews ballots in teams of two and hand tallies the votes. In King County, for example, hand recounts are required when the vote total difference between two candidates is less than 150 votes and also less than 0.25% of the total number of votes cast for both candidates.
A final report at the end of the ballot tabulation process includes a summary of how many ballots were received, the final outcome of how many ballots were counted, and also how many ballots remained in a “challenged” status and were rejected by the county’s canvassing board. In the process of tracking ballots and reporting the final outcome, election officials create an audit trail. These reports assist state and county decision-makers in identifying and understanding trends in elections across multiple years and, eventually, making improvements to elections systems.
Election Security Measures
Election security measures include audits, random checks, ballot-polling risk-limiting audits, and independent electronic audits of ballot counting equipment. Recent state laws have adopted additional election security practices, including auditing and equipment requirements. See, for example, RCW 29A.60.185.
The Washington Secretary of State Elections & Voting home page is a great resource for state-related election and voter registration information and also offers links to additional, county-based sources, such as local county elections office.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.