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Uncounted ballots from August primary election found in November

Pierce County elections workers misplaced 152 ballots from the August primary election, officials reported this week.
Pierce County elections workers misplaced 152 ballots from the August primary election, officials reported this week.

More than 150 uncounted ballots from the August primary election were discovered by Pierce County Elections officials in early November, the Auditor’s office reported Tuesday.

The ballots collected from a drop box located at Pierce County Fire District 56 in Purdy were found in a storage bin at the elections office in Tacoma.

“We didn’t discover the error until we started preparing for the general election,” said Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson, whose office supervises county elections. “The ballots were sealed in a security bag, so they weren’t tampered with or molested in anyway. But the error was that they were not put on the processing table.”

As a result, they were not counted as part of the primary election and won’t be, as those results already have been certified, Anderson said.

She stressed that “there is no way” the votes contained on the ballots would have changed the outcome of any primary races, but she expressed regret that some people’s votes did not count.

“It was a serious error,” Anderson said.

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Anderson reported the error to the state Secretary of State’s Office, the County Executive’s Office and the Pierce County Canvassing Board. She also contacted local news agencies and others to report the discovery.

“We want to be transparent about this,” she said.

Anderson said the ballots were picked up on election night, Aug. 1, and transported to the election office but mistakenly placed inside a storage tub, which was later put into storage.

After the ballots were discovered, the department immediately counted them to see if it would have changed the outcome of the primary, Anderson said. Luckily, the outcome was not affected. Even if it had been, the office would have no legal authority to change the results, she said.

As in most elections, paid part-time workers were in charge of collecting the ballots from drop boxes Aug. 1.

The Pierce County Election Office has anywhere from 200 to 500 election workers. Some workers are seasoned and have been through the rush of a busy election night, but many don’t come back each year, leaving the job to newly trained workers collection the votes.

“We have 35 teams of two working on collecting ballots and some backup teams just in case,” Anderson said. “We try to pair experienced workers with our new people. They are assigned one drop box. They are to close it down. They retrieve the ballots. They seal the ballots. They seal the drop box, and they bring the sealed ballots back to the election center.”

Because of the error, new procedures have been put in place to try to prevent a similar error. One “significant change” will be that elections workers no longer will transport ballots in security bags. All ballots now will have to be transported in sealed tubs from now on, Anderson siad.

“If three tubs go out, three tubs will have to be checked back in,” she said.

The changes were sent to the Secretary of State’s Office for review. That office will execute a performance audit during the February election.

Although Anderson said the result of the mistake could have been worse, her team takes the missing ballot issue very seriously.

“For us this error carries the same weight whether it would’ve changed the outcome or not,” Anderson said. “Because every vote counts, and that’s not just a motto for us. It’s an oath we take and it’s one of the values of our organizations. Yes, we were lucky, but it doesn’t make the error less significant or important for us.”

Danielle Chastaine: 253-358-4155, @gateway_danie

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