Politics & Government

In the next county election, you’ll vote with ovals instead of arrows

In the next Pierce County election, you’ll vote with ovals instead of arrows

New ballot tabulation system expected to reduce logjams and ease ballot verification
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New ballot tabulation system expected to reduce logjams and ease ballot verification

Goodbye arrows, hello bubbles.

If you vote in Pierce County, that’s the visual adjustment you’ll be making when the next election comes around Aug. 1 and elections officials roll out a new ballot tabulation system.

The Clear Ballot system, purchased last month for $790,400, replaces a ’90s-vintage optical scanning setup.

For voters, the new system represents the difference between filling a gap in a graphic arrow (the old ballot) and filling in a test-score style oval (the new ballot.)

For County Auditor Julie Anderson and elections manager Mike Rooney, the changes are more profound: less time and people power spent on fixing ballots the old scanner couldn’t read, and faster counts and results in close races that take days to resolve.

It won’t mean speedier answers on Election Day; some voters will still wait to the last minute to mail in ballots.

On election night, I don’t think you’re gonna see a big difference. The logjam is in the signature verification process, where we get that big glump of ballots.

Julie Anderson, Pierce County Auditor

“On election night, I don’t think you’re gonna see a big difference,” Anderson said. “The logjam is in the signature verification process, where we get that big glump of ballots.”

Anderson figures the efficiencies will show up on “those dribbling days, days four, five and six, when we’re all watching close races. That’s gonna speed up.”

Verification — of signatures or poorly marked ballots — was a ponderous process with the old scanner system. Imagine an indecisive voter picking Candidate A on the old ballot, then switching to Candidate B, and marking the mistaken choice with an X. Or picture a decisive voter spilling a latte after making all the choices. The old scanner would choke on either example.

Handling such ballots required four pairs of eyes:

▪ Two people to create a new duplicate ballot the scanner could read while attempting to reflect voter intent.

▪ Two more people to ensure the duplicate ballot was handled properly and fed through the scanner.

During the November election, county workers had to duplicate 50,000 ballots in that manner.

The new system changes the process. Rather than requiring the creation of a duplicate paper ballot, the system preserves a digital image of the original ballot, allowing election workers to assess voter intent on the spot, said elections supervisor Damon Townsend.

Elections observers — volunteers from political parties — will be able to view the verification process in real time while ballots are being examined, and see the decisions elections workers make. That’s not new, but the Clear Ballot system offers a readable interface that makes the choices easier to follow for observers.

Elections officials expect the new system will reduce unreadable ballots by 90 percent. Anderson also noted that the new system’s preservation of the original ballot in digital form will allow easier and more reliable auditing of verification decisions if necessary.

Elections officials expect the new system will reduce unreadable ballots by 90 percent.

While the new system will take a picture of the ballot, it won’t tally votes before Election Day. The old scanner tallied votes as it read ballots, meaning it couldn’t be used to process ballots until the morning before Election Day under state law. The new system separates the processing from the counting.

“We can actually start scanning these ballots through our equipment now when we receive them,” Rooney said.

Election geeks can see a demonstration of the new system during an open house at the county elections center from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. March 30.

Voters will notice another small detail: the new physical ballots will be a bit lighter and cheaper than the card stock used in previous elections, designed for the old scanners.

As for the old equipment, it’s still sitting at the elections center. Rooney and Anderson said some of the scanners will be sold to other jurisdictions that still use the older scanning systems.

Some agencies may buy the old gear solely for parts and backup for their old systems, Rooney said.

How much is the stuff worth?

“There’s not a big market if we were to put it up on Craigslist, which we are not,” Anderson said, after a smiling pause. “But there’s a lot of states that are way, far behind. Their voter rolls are growing, but their budgets for new acquisition are not.”

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