How a ballot becomes a counted ballot: Pierce County workers escort long journey

Election workers label and seal boxes of ballots after they were scanned in the tabulation area of the Pierce County Elections Center, Nov. 2, 2015.
Election workers label and seal boxes of ballots after they were scanned in the tabulation area of the Pierce County Elections Center, Nov. 2, 2015. Staff photographer

It’s just a ballot.

But a long journey awaits each of the ballots deposited in the 30 drop boxes in Pierce County for this week’s general election. The intricate process may even be too much for the old “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoons to simplify with a clever jingle.

Early Monday at Tacoma’s Kandle Park, ballot collectors in orange vests unlocked the hatch on a drop box and carefully opened it to keep the envelopes from spilling onto the sidewalk.

“Sometimes they get so full you have to call back to (the elections center) because people can’t get their ballots into the box,” said Laura Miller, who has collected ballots for the Auditor’s Office since 2012.

It was 6:30 a.m. when her group started their drop box visits — one of 10 routes that are done during election week.

They’ve got it down to a science: neatly stack the ballots so they face the same direction; sign, file and attach the appropriate paperwork; and seal the transport containers.

A blue seal on the hatch is designed to show whether anyone has tampered with the drop box.

“If those are broken, we know if something isn’t right,” said Carol Goldstein, a ballot collector since 2007.

Similarly, zip ties on the transport containers show the ballots inside haven’t been touched since they were collected.

At least two workers monitor and sign off on every step to guarantee laws and procedures are followed.

Although it’s serious business, it’s cheerfully executed.

About a half dozen smiling voters dropped off their ballots Monday while the group worked.

“I guess I timed that right,” one said from his car.

“Thank you for voting!” the workers said in response.

The group collected 1,040 ballots Monday at four locations.

Next stop, around 8:30 a.m.: the elections center at the Pierce County Annex, where the complicated part of the journey begins.

Upon arrival, Goldstein fetched a cart while fellow elections worker Kriss Peters monitored the trunk full of sealed bins.

“Someone stays with them at all times,” he said.

The workers wheeled the cart through a secured-entry door and straight to a scale for weighing. This is the first step in a long process of sorting, opening, verifying, scanning and re-sealing.

Elections Manager Mike Rooney said roughly 100 employees will work with ballots daily during election week. Most are part-timers making $14 per hour.

The ballots are straightened by hand in preparation for electronic sorting. A machine takes pictures of the envelopes and signatures, which are uploaded to the county’s voter registration system.

A group of about 16 people checks batches of signatures, about 275 per batch.

Rebecca Brauhn, ballot processing coordinator, said it takes each worker about 20 to 30 minutes to check each batch. They’re trained by Washington State Patrol forensic specialists.

“There are significant nuances to a signature,” Brauhn said.

The ones that fail are mechanically separated from the pile and sent to the challenge department, where elections staff notify voters and solve discrepancies.

The ballots that pass the signature test aren’t off the hook just yet. As part of a 10-step “opening process,” they face scrutiny for other errors — wrong color ink, stray marks that need further review, marks and impressions bleeding through from the opposite side, and more.

These flawed ballots take the route less traveled. Experts decipher voter intent using another thorough screening process, and a new ballot — called a remake — is eventually created for clean tallying.

“There are lots of errors that the voters make,” Brauhn said, adding that challenged signatures and sloppy ballots cost the most time and money.

After the ballots and their corresponding envelopes are sorted and archived by legislative district, they are sealed once more in plastic bins.

The next time they’re opened, the ballots are scanned by a machine that eventually tallies the results. Then the ballots are re-packaged in sealed cardboard boxes and stored. They’ll be kept for 60 days after the election is certified Nov. 24.

Only the machines know the outcome until 8 p.m. on election night, officials say. That’s when staff tally the stored information and release results.

Keeping the results a mystery, even to elections staff, ensures campaigns are fair and results are honest, Brauhn said.

The week of the election, daily ballot processing begins at 7 a.m. and wraps up around 10 p.m., though it sometimes runs as late as midnight in years when a presidential race is on the line.

This year, Brauhn said, the ballot processing is expected to run as smoothly as ever for the local races and ballot measures that dominate an off-year election.

“We’re expecting to wrap up with this election early,” she said.

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682




Your last chance is Tuesday (Nov. 3). You can submit your ballot several ways: Add a stamp and mail it, deposit it without a stamp in a drop box by 8 p.m., or vote in person at any of several vote centers throughout Pierce County from 7 a.m.-8 p.m.

For a list of the 30 drop boxes and four voting centers, visit the Pierce County website at co.pierce.wa.us.

For information about South Sound election candidates, including their answers to our questions, go to The News Tribune’s customized guide at bit.ly/1HB9K9l.


The News Tribune will publish results shortly after election officials start releasing them around 8:15 p.m. Go online to thenewstribune.com.

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