Alice Jeffers of Tacoma was working her shift at the Pierce County Elections Center on Thursday – one of more than 200 part-time employees the county Auditor’s Office hired for the primary election season.
They handle tasks such as emptying ballot boxes on Election Day, preparing ballots to be scanned and putting them through a machine to be counted.
Jeffers said one day she opened more than 900 ballots and another day checked around 3,000 signatures for verification.
“I’ve learned a lot about the process,” she said. “I had no idea there was this much detail.”
But no matter how closely local election leaders pay attention to the details, predicting voter participation – and pinpointing exactly when ballots will come in – is no easy task.
“Odd years, even years, presidential years. They all have their natural ebb and flow,” said County Auditor Julie Anderson, who won a special election to the job in 2009 and was reelected in 2010. “Not every election is the same.”
Prior to this week’s election, Anderson’s office had projected 48 percent of the county’s registered voters would participate. However, a slow return of early ballots in the days leading up to the election persuaded the county to drop the projection to 40 percent – a little less than four years ago.
Anderson is standing by that lower number, even with a steady influx of ballots as this week has progressed – what she described as “a drought followed by a tsunami.” Her office collected more than 25,000 ballots at drop boxes at the 8 p.m. deadline on Election Day, and more than 60,000 ballots were on hand to be counted from the post office Wednesday.
All told, county election workers had processed 111,203 ballots through Wednesday, and an additional 28,265 on Thursday. They expect to be mostly done counting by today, but a gradually shrinking force of workers will continue to count a dwindling number of ballots up until the election is certified on Aug. 21.
The ballot numbers they’re seeing now are a fraction of what they’ll face in November, when they expect voter participation will more than double. It will be Anderson’s first presidential election as auditor.
“The people who vote in the primary are generally the steady, reliable voters,” Anderson said. “A lot of people sit out the primary.”
Anderson said she believes the main cause of the low initial turnout was the change in primary election date. Aug. 7 is the earliest the state has conducted it in recent history.
The date was changed to accommodate military voters in the wake of the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, which requires states to provide service members with their ballot 45 days before an election. Congress approved the MOVE Act in 2009, but Washington state was not fully compliant until this year.
“We’re happy the primary date changed, but it’s going to take people awhile to get used to,” Anderson said.
Legislative and congressional redistricting, which takes place every 10 years, also may have played a role in low participation. Anderson said many local candidates were not sure which district they would be running in and waited longer to begin their campaigns.
“Their campaigns didn’t mature until late,” Anderson said. “That’s what drives a ballot – contact from the campaigns.”
While voter participation was lower than expected in the primary, the Auditor’s Office does not expect the same result in November. With the presidential and the governor’s contests and several voter initiatives on the ballot, county officials project voter participation to be 84 percent for the general election.
“It’s the presidential race and the majors — that’s what drives the general,” said Pierce County Elections Manager Mike Rooney.
One of the main indicators of voter participation is historical data from past elections. Anderson said her office looks at trends from the past four years, as well as data from similar elections.
For this year, the Auditor’s Office looked at data from the 2008 presidential election when voter turnout was 81 percent. Anderson said that number, combined with factors including an increased military population in the county, led to a higher prediction for this year’s general election.
One reason the Auditor’s Office aims to accurately predict voter turnout is so it can make part-time hires accordingly.
Rooney said his office plans to hire roughly 400 part-time employees for the general election, nearly twice as many as the primary. However, the Auditor’s Office frequently decides to send people home and bring them back as the workload fluctuates.zach.smith@ thenewstribune.com 253-597-8670