Change is coming for Pierce County voters.
That pesky arrow you are supposed to connect to mark your selection? By next year it will be gone.
In its place: a new way to mark your ballot that elections officials think will be more intuitive. Think of a ballot that asks you to fill in the bubble, or box.
The change is tied to the replacement of outdated ballot tabulation system used by the Pierce County Auditor’s Office since 1992.
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“We are going to get more efficient equipment and more flexibility and we think it will be a better product for the public,” county Auditor Julie Anderson said.
The county now uses optical scanners, which state law prohibits firing up until the Monday morning before Election Day. The new digital scan voting equipment will take pictures of ballots rather than record their votes, so elections staff can begin scanning ballots as they are received.
The public can watch demonstrations of how the new system could work at meetings Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at Clover Park Technical College. Two of the four vendors vying for the county’s business will make presentations then.
One thing that won’t change: Tabulation of the votes still will happen after 8 p.m. on election night. Also: voters still will receive paper ballots in the mail under the new system.
The difference will be in how the ballot looks and feels. The new system, in addition to permitting the introduction of voting by oval or rectangle, also might be able to handle a wider range of paper stock, allowing the county to save money or trees by picking lighter weights or recycled paper.
The end of the connect-the-arrow ballot is welcome news for Pierce County elections staff who say it’s surprising how many people don’t connect the line correctly.
“We have more ballots that need to be remade than other counties that have a different marking style,” Anderson said.
Mismarked arrows aren’t the only reason a ballot is remade. Food or drink spills or the use of permanent marker that bleeds through also can prompt the need for a new ballot.
All these make it impossible for the county’s optical scanners to read a voter’s selection, so these ballots are set aside until elections staff can “remake” or fill out a new ballot that records the voter’s choices.
It’s not a quick process.
Elections supervisor Damon Townsend estimated elections personnel spent about an hour per ballot to remake unreadable ballots from the Nov. 8 general election. The two-sided ballot contributed to the lengthy process.
“We are still in the process of remaking ballots we received a week and-a-half ago,” Townsend said in a phone interview Thursday.
He noted elections officials have been working 12- and 16-hour shifts to meet the Nov. 29 election certification deadline.
In 2012, elections staff had to remake 47,041, or 13.5 percent, of the ballots cast in the general election, according to figures from Anderson’s office.
The delay ultimately slows election results and can be nerve-wracking for voters and candidates in close races, Anderson said.
Moving to a digital system should make it easier to handle problem ballots. Instead of physically duplicating the ballot, elections officials will view the ballot image on a screen and resolve any problems that prevent the voter’s choices from being counted. The system will log those decisions and attach them to the original image, which will be stored on an in-house server that has no internet connection or other connectivity outside the building.
“We’re going to eliminate 100 percent of the remakes and only be adjudicating electronically the problem areas,” Anderson said.
The new voting system could lead to a higher percentage of votes released sooner, although election night totals aren’t likely to differ much, Townsend said. That’s because initial tabulations are at the mercy of voters, and Pierce County voters tend to hold onto their ballots. Anderson estimates the county receives about 50 percent of ballots before or on election day with the remainder coming later.
The auditor’s office has been preparing for the equipment upgrade since 2010. For five years, it has collected a small fee from jurisdictions, including the county, holding elections. The money collected will pay for a new system which Anderson estimates will cost roughly $750,000.
The county will make its selection by the end of the year. The earliest voters would see a new ballot would be April, if there is an election then.
View the new voting technology
Two vendors vying for Pierce County’s contract for a new ballot tabulation system will be at Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood to show off their systems Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. The demonstrations will be 9 a.m.-noon each day in the rotunda of Building 3, 4500 Steilacoom Blvd. SW.