Lost ballots cause auditor to make list, check twice

Pierce County election staff members count and verify ballots.
Pierce County election staff members count and verify ballots. News Tribune file photo, 2016

Who hasn’t lost stuff? Phones, keys and passports go missing every day. Heck, in 1966, someone in the National Archives lost JFK’s brain. Human error happens.

But when more than 150 Pierce County ballots get lost and subsequently go uncounted, a forensic lookback is necessary. Fortunately, Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson agrees.

On the night of the Aug. 1 primary election, 152 ballots were picked up at a drop box in Purdy. But instead of making it to the processing table, they sat in a zipped-up bag inside a storage room tub at the election center in Tacoma for more than three months, buried under supplies such as flashlights and safety vests.

They were discovered 81 days after the election had been certified.

Anderson points to the plethora of part-time election workers handling ballots, but we all know employees are only as good as the system they’ve been trained to implement.

The voting public can take some solace knowing those lost ballots, had they been counted, wouldn’t have changed the outcome of any of the races in the primary. Nonetheless, the error impinged on a cherished right.

Anderson said it best: “We don’t judge the importance of our error based on its impact. The potential impact matters. Voter confidence matters. Accountability matters.”

To put things in perspective: This is not a case of election corruption; lost ballots are a far cry from ballot tampering or miscounting votes for partisan gain. This is nothing like the high-stakes blunders and alleged illegal votes in King County during the 2004 Gregoire-Rossi governor election, which came down to a 133-vote margin.

But had those missing Peninsula votes yielded a different outcome, amends could not have been made. Once an election is certified, there’s no changing it, which is why Anderson’s summation is spot-on: “It was a serious error.”

And, yes, the timing is bad. Washington voters are already apathetic, especially during local election years. For the second consecutive off-year election, the Evergreen state set a record for poor turnout.

Pierce County’s 28 percent general election participation — second-worst in the state behind Yakima County — was “cringeworthy,” to quote Andrew Villeneuve, executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute.

Voters might be turned off even more if given any reason to doubt the integrity of the electoral system.

Anderson has been transparent and forthcoming. She could have stopped after disclosing the lost ballots in a footnote report to the Secretary of State’s office. There is no law or rule requiring a county auditor to do anything more.

But Anderson also notified Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier and the county canvassing board. She reached out to local news media, though she waited until after the general election certification (Nov. 28) in order to reduce confusion between the primary and general elections.

The only people not notified were the voters whose ballots went uncounted. “We decided to tell the general public, rather than attempt to contact individual voters,” Anderson said.

Had the auditor’s office gone that extra mile, it would have been an irrefutable gesture of accountability. Each of those ballots represents someone whose voice was muffled; misplacing them was a disservice to the endangered species of civic-minded citizens who still bother to vote in primaries.

The mistake highlighted a weakness in the system, but it should not deter voter confidence over the long run.

Pierce County has an excellent record: Out of the 3.36 million votes cast in Washington’s 2016 elections, state officials identified only 74 cases of possible voter fraud. Two of those cases were from Pierce County, and both involved people voting in more than one state.

It’s also worth noting that last year Pierce County received a “Clearie” Award from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Think of it as an Oscar for best practices in election administration.

As a result of the recent mistake, Anderson promises changes in the pick-up process. Sealed tubs will replace bags, and the tubs will be inventoried and cross-checked.

A gaffe like this hasn’t happened in Pierce County before, and reading through Anderson’s long list of corrective steps, we’re confident it won’t happen again.