Editorials

Rest easy, Pierce County voters; your ballots are in capable hands

Pierce County Election Center workers bring in ballots from one of more than 40 drop boxes spread around local communities. They’re pouring them from a collection box designed by engineering students at Bates Technical College.
Pierce County Election Center workers bring in ballots from one of more than 40 drop boxes spread around local communities. They’re pouring them from a collection box designed by engineering students at Bates Technical College. phaley@thenewstribune.com

The first batch of voting results will be released Tuesday night, and with that the boisterous midterm elections enter a quieter phase of watching, waiting and holding our collective breath.

Public attention now shifts behind the scenes, to places like the Pierce County Election Center. There, a crew of more than 150 fleet-fingered ballot counters and other temporary employees work with the discipline of Santa’s elves.

Security is the watchword this year, as it should be after a 2016 presidential election haunted by evidence of Russian meddling. Mischief makers can do as much damage stoking fear and sowing misinformation through social media as they can hacking computer networks.

In a joint statement last month, the FBI, Justice Department and other federal authorities warned of “ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other foreign actors, including Iran, to undermine confidence in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment and government policies.” Voters could be vulnerable in both the 2018 and 2020 elections, the feds said.

But we believe Pierce County voters have reason for encouragement. A tour of the Election Center on Monday gave a glimpse of a secure facility where ballots are examined by teams of two, signatures are scrupulously checked against records on file and political party observers are always present to raise any concerns. There are multiple viewing windows, and the building is under video surveillance.

Step by step, ballot envelopes move from sealed boxes to sorting machines to human hands, a carefully choreographed ballet that’s reassuringly old school in its emphasis on hard copies. Where computers are used, all wires run to a self-contained server. If it’s not impenetrable to outsiders, it comes awfully close.

Mistakes do happen from time to time, but credit Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson for learning from them — and tapping into local ingenuity to craft new solutions.

A year ago, more than 150 ballots collected from a drop box in Purdy went uncounted after being placed in a nondescript plastic bin and set aside in a storage closet.

This year, Anderson (who’s running unopposed for reelection) and her staff asked engineering students at Bates Technical College to build a better mousetrap — or rather, customized, grab-and-go boxes that fit snugly inside the metal drop boxes. Now collection teams can bring their cargo back to the Election Center with minimal handling of individual ballots.

Local residents seem to have faith in free and fair elections, judging by the number of newly registered voters. Pierce County’s total has reached just shy of a half million voters — 499,164, to be precise. And with more than 51 percent of ballots returned as of Tuesday afternoon, this year’s turnout is on pace to far surpass that of the 2014 midterms.

The Center for American Progress this year gave Washington a mediocre grade for electoral system integrity, one of 23 states to score a “C.” Washington was docked for not requiring post-election audits, though the Secretary of State’s office does conduct technical tests and random ballot reviews.

Our vote-by-mail system provides a strong paper trail, which puts us at less risk of being hacked than states with electronic voting. Enhanced firewalls and sensors protect online voter registration data in all 39 counties, Gov. Jay Inslee and Secretary of State Kim Wyman said at a press conference last month.

Washington is also known for its cybersecurity talent, including a National Guard unit, the 252nd Cyberspace Operations Group, based at Camp Murray in Lakewood; it has conducted three pre-election security assessments for the state this year.

All in all, Washington has a good story to tell. Thanks to skilled election professionals and crews of seasonal workers that would make Santa envious, voters should feel confident as this week’s results trickle in.

But we certainly can’t afford to let our guard down heading toward 2020.

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