In the 2020 election season, I had the honor of being selected to help prepare Snohomish County ballots at the elections processing center. I provided a story about my experience on how your vote was counted here on everettpost.com. I was again asked to help for this most recent election cycle and offer an update to my experience.

Elections are funded by state and local taxes. Vote by mail is far more cost effective than renting, equipping, and staffing polling places. For those concerned about any election fraud, the process is secure, complete with meticulous accountability and accuracy from start to finish for each and every ballot received.

The election vote tabulation effort has four key steps toward processing all the ballots and counting the votes. They are receiving/scanning, signature verification, ballot preparation, and adjudication/tabulation.

Since the volume of ballots this election cycle was far smaller than last year’s Presidential, state and local elections, the process was conducted within the Elections Office instead of last year’s larger space. Covid-19 safety measures remained including wearing masks and gloves.

Receiving/Scanning

Voter ballots arrived in two manners, through the Postal Service and from the more than 30 ballot drop boxes scattered around the county. Using votewa.gov, everyone I spoke with that mailed their ballot said that it was ‘in the system’ the next day. Mailed ballots were retrieved by local post office staff, trucked to the Seattle processing and distribution center, and delivered to the county elections office at around 5:30 AM the next morning with security on hand.

Elections office staff visited the drop boxes to retrieve ballots at least once a day, closing for good on Election Day at 8 PM. Initially, most ballots arrived in the mail. But In the days leading into Election Day, the bulk of ballots came from drop boxes.  Out of more than 517,000 registered voters in Snohomish County, about 185,000 ballots or 35 percent were returned.

In the secured basement of the Elections office, the incoming envelopes were scanned by a large state-of-the-art scanning machine. This machine scanned the voter individualized bar code, scanned the signature, date and other voter provided information, and sorted the envelopes into batches of 200 – all recorded in sequence for each batch. Using focused forced air, it opened each envelope along the bottom seam as it was scanned.

For those concerned about duplicate ballots, this machine is smart. If it encountered another matching bar code, it captured it for further action by staff.  Each batch of 200 envelopes were placed into trays, marked with batch identification numbers, and stacked on rolling racks.

Signature Verification

In another part of the office, select trained staff compared the envelope signatures from each voter’s registration card, compared side-by-side on a monitor. If a discrepancy arose, it was referred to a special group that followed up with the voter. This explains why your email address and phone number can be placed on your return envelope.

One question that arose is what if your signature evolves over time, is dissimilar, or your signature is different today thanks to a medical condition? The signature verification team follows up with the voter to address these kinds of issues.

Once the voter signatures were verified in each batch of 200, the ballots moved to the next step in the process.

Ballot Preparation

Ballot preparation is where I participated with a team of about twenty. The process involved extracting the ballots from the envelopes and preparing them for tabulation.

This process involved several steps. First was checking out a batch of 200 ballots from those who managed the inventory of batches, then at my table ensuring the batch did have 200 ballots by counting and separating into groups of 20 envelopes, followed by pulling the secrecy sleeve and ballot from each envelope creating separate stacks of 20 envelopes for all 200.

Remember the funny holes in the envelopes and secrecy sleeves? There is a reason for those holes. Upon finishing each group of 20 ballots, the envelopes were bunched together tightly so you could see through all 20 envelopes to ensure everything was removed.

Once all 200 sleeves and ballots were removed from the envelopes, the envelopes were rubber-banded together in groups of 30 or 40 with the batch number written on the last envelope. Per regulations, these envelopes are archived in a secured county warehouse for 22 months in case there is any need to review them for a recount or other legal reason.

Next, the ballots were removed from the secrecy sleeves, unfolded, inspected for any damage and/or additional marks or errors made by the voter. The most frequent damages to a ballot are ballot seam splits that need to be taped back together, ink splotches, and voters trimming the edges of the ballots like a shopping coupon. Voter errors included crossing out a vote made and not filling in the ‘bubble’ next to the chosen name or write-in. These kinds of ballots were separated from the rest and placed in special sleeves that those in adjudication will inspect more closely to ensure each vote is counted.

The ballots were then recounted to ensure the total was 200, and neatly stacked into a special fitted box along with any damaged or other ballot sleeves. The box was then fitted with its batch number tag, reviewed by a coordinator complete with signing off on the batch tracker form, and placed on an inventory rack where those tracking the batches prepared them for the next step – those in adjudication.

During Election Day news coverage, you may have seen video of ballot processing centers, and they often showed those preparing ballots to be tabulated. That was my task.

Tabulating the Votes

The final step in the process was the adjudication ‘cage’. This area had the tightest security. Inside the cage were the tabulation machines where the ballots were scanned. For those ballots that had any questions or issues such as the coffee soaked ballots or extraneous or unclear marks, pairs of ballot evaluators sat next to each other viewing these ballots on large computer monitors and determined what the voter intended.

The scanners use the dashed markings to center the ballot as it ran thru the scanner capturing the image on both sides of the ballot. Those images were what were used to tabulate the votes for each race. Write-in votes were also captured. The scanners tally the ‘bubbles’ filled in by the voter.

Vote tabulations were saved in an ‘off the Internet’ set of servers, waiting for the evening of Election Day to be tabulated and reported. The vote count offered on Election Night involved early voting. The rest of the ballots received on or just before Election Day were processed during the rest of the week, adding to vote totals each day.

More key takeaway words from my experience serving in the election ballot processing effort – methodical, thorough, disciplined, reliable, comprehensive, responsible, and precise.

Some Final Thoughts

Observers including the public viewed this whole process in the Elections office. Everyone used red throughout the facility – any other pens or writing tools were not permitted. There were no waste baskets. A few envelopes also included other original ballot mailing materials such as voting instructions, and about 3 percent of voters did not tear off the ballot stubs that had to be removed. All such paper was taken away by the coordinators.

A few ballots included what were called ‘love notes’. Some of these notes were quite kind. One voter wrote, “To all the volunteers at the polls and all the candidates, I am grateful for your willingness to serve our communities.” Another wrote, “Thank you for all your election work. You’re the best!”  A few others were – well, let’s just say they expressed frustration.

Some of the write-in votes were clever and included Mickey and Minnie Mouse, James T. Kirk, Luke Skywalker, and none of the above.

Now you know more about how your vote was counted during this recent election cycle – a fascinating process with integrity and security so every vote counted.

North Sound Meteorologist Ted Buehner worked more than 40 years for the National Weather Service (NWS) from 1977 to 2018. He is now an Everett Post Media team member. Together with Everett Post Weather Minute Podcasts, he provides morning and afternoon commute traffic and weather updates on both KRKO and KXA Radio, and sports reporting on KRKO.