Elections Integrity and Security: Part 1
September 26, 2022
Voting is both a right and a responsibility. Accuracy, transparency, and fairness are all crucial to the right to vote and the responsibility to provide secure elections. Elections systems need to protect each person’s vote and ensure that our elections are safe and secure.
This is the first of a two-part blog series that looks at several aspects of elections, including accurate voter registrations, protected collection of ballots — including in the mail and at ballot deposit sites — and timely election results.
Accurate Voter Registration Lists
Washington’s statewide database of active voter registrations is maintained by the Washington Secretary of State's Office (SOS). This voter registration system is called VoteWA and can be additionally accessed from SOS's Elections & Voting landing page.
According to the SOS website, Washington state currently has more than 4.75 million active voter registrations. Eligible persons may register online up to eight days before the election and registered voters may check and update their registration information at VoteWA. In-person registration is allowed until 8:00 p.m. on the day of the election at designated voting centers (see RCW 29A.08.140). State law provides that “[r]egistration of a person as a voter is presumptive evidence of his or her right to vote.”
Challenges may be made to individual voter registrations. A challenge to the person's right to vote must be based on personal knowledge of the person’s citizenship, age, residential address, status as a felon ineligible to vote, or a court order of ineligibility to vote due to mental incompetency. The burden of proof lies with the challenger, and evidence must be presented to the county canvassing board for review. Forms can be obtained through the SOS or county auditors. This process is governed by RCW 29A.08.810 -RCW 29A.08.850.
All Mail-in Voting
Under RCW 29A.40.010, all 39 counties have used mail-in voting since 2011. Although there are no longer individual polling places, each county has at least one voting center to allow day-of, in-person registrations, in-person voting, and to help with requests for assistance. Each voting center must be accessible to persons with disabilities. See RCW 29A.40.160(5).
State law requires that return envelopes for ballots must now include prepaid postage and the state must reimburse counties for the cost of prepaid postage on mail and absentee ballots in primary and general elections (see RCW 29A.04.420). This law recognizes that “voting by mail has many advantages,” but that it does present a slight barrier, noting:
[W]hile the cost of ballot return postage may only be a small amount, passing the burden along to Washington's citizens, many of whom no longer need stamps in their everyday lives, is an unnecessary barrier to fully participate in the democratic process.
Secure Ballot Deposit Sites (Collection Boxes)
Placing a completed ballot in a ballot collection box (i.e., drop box) is an alternative to using the postal system. RCW 29A.40.170 requires county auditors to establish:
a minimum of one ballot drop box per fifteen thousand registered voters in the county and a minimum of one ballot drop box in each city, town, and census-designated place in the county with a post office.
In addition, any county auditor, upon request from a federally recognized Indian tribe with a reservation in that county:
must establish at least one ballot drop box on the Indian reservation on a site selected by the tribe that is accessible to the county auditor by a public road.
Convenient and secure ballot collection boxes are provided statewide by counties. The SOS maintains a map showing ballot drop boxes and voting centers in each county.
Recent news stories have reported on observers stationed at ballot collection boxes during the primary election watching persons depositing completed ballots. Observers are required to stay at least 25 feet away from ballot deposit sites and may not impede or interfere with the voting process. WAC 434-250-100(6) specifically states:
Within twenty-five feet of a ballot deposit site that is not located within a voting center, no person may electioneer, circulate campaign material, solicit petition signatures, or interfere with or impede the voting process. Whenever it is necessary to maintain order around a ballot deposit site, the county auditor may contact a law enforcement agency for assistance.
Since 2021, RCW 29A.84.610 makes fraudulent portrayal of a ballot collection box — i.e., those officially established by a county auditor — a gross misdemeanor crime. It is unlawful to knowingly misrepresent an unofficial ballot collection site or device as an official ballot drop box.
One Vote Per Registered Voter
Each voter has a single active record in the statewide voter registration database (VoteWA). When a ballot is received by the county's election division, the signature is compared to the voter’s registration and the voter’s record is marked as that person having returned a ballot. If the voter attempts to return an additional ballot, the system warns the election official that a ballot has already been returned. Election workers report that information to the canvassing board, that in turn reports it to the county prosecuting attorney if further investigation is warranted.
In recent years, there have been more questions both locally and nationally about our elections systems. Concerns have been raised about eligibility of registered voters, all mail-in balloting, security of ballot submissions, and how ballots are processed, counted, and sometimes recounted. Regardless of individual political beliefs, I believe we all have a shared interest in promoting election integrity and following best practices to ensure that future elections are free, fair, and transparent.
Part two of this blog series will look at additional measures that ensure our elections are conducted fairly and all the votes are counted accurately.
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.