By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD – One person not losing sleep over potential voter fraud in Kitsap County is the official responsible for overseeing the upcoming general election vote-counting process: Kitsap County Auditor Paul Andrews.
Andrews was blunt in his assessment of the county’s ballot-counting operation: “We know what we are doing.”
The county’s auditor said voters should also rest easy: “[This] is an important election for the voters and the county but we administer elections like this all the time.”
Voting fraud is a frequent topic discussed on the cable news shows. Concern over fraudulent ballots coming from foreign countries, people voting more than once, discarded ballots and the post office being unprepared to handle the high number of mail-in ballots are on the list of nightmare scenarios being played out over the airwaves by political pundits.
But instead of being a hot spot for these disruptions, most election officials regionally and nationally are looking to this state and others with a history of conducting by-mail voting operations to lead the way.
Washington is one of five states in the pre-COVID era that has voted entirely by mail. But now, spurred on by the pandemic, at least three-quarters of all American voters will be eligible to receive a ballot in the mail for the 2020 election — the most in U.S. history, according to a New York Times analysis.
The Evergreen State transitioned to a mail-in voting process about 10 years ago. Before that, voters had to wait in line at their polling place on Election Day, often at a school gymnasium or community center, and step into a voting booth to cast their votes.
But after years of experience with mail-in voting and improvements to safety protocols over time, Andrews is confident every voter’s ballot will be accurately counted and that no voting fraud will take place in the county during the voting period that ends Nov. 3.
“We have had 10 years of doing this. It has just become second nature,” he said.
Voting twice? Nearly impossible
It would be hard — actually, nearly impossible — to vote twice in the state of Washington because of the vote management system that connects all counties across the state, the auditor said.
“Once we have issued you a ballot that you have returned, your status [showing you have voted] is updated for the entire state.”
For example, if someone in King County was issued a ballot and mailed it in, and then the person went to Kitsap, registered and tried to vote again here, the ballot would be rejected because the statewide voting system would show the person already voted in King County, he said.
As for the claim that meddlers in another country could mail in thousands of false ballots, Andrews said: “That is my favorite question. For the United States, there are about 10,000 election officials like me. We don’t do things the same way,” he said.
Each voting jurisdiction uses different paper, envelopes and ballots, and each has its own barcoding system. So, the efforts involved in making up false ballots would be enormous, he indicated. And in this state, the barcode system used to mark each envelope would prevent duplicate voting, he added.
“Let’s say someone decides to photocopy a ballot a bunch of times. First, they have to get a registered voter who has not voted, and second, the barcode on the ballot is unique. Once it goes through the system, it will reject every duplicate barcode after that.”
Overwhelming the postal system
Is there concern the post office will be overburdened?
“My short answer is no,” Andrews replied.
“We’ve been voting by mail for more than 10-years. [The post office] understands what vote-by-mail looks like. They handled the last presidential election. They are used to the volume increases that can happen. We’ve been working really well with the post office all of these years.”
Throwing away ballots
Some cable television hosts claim ballots in other states have been tossed in ditches and garbage cans. Andrews said, “Our elections room is not set up to allow for ballots to be thrown away.”
At the end of each shift, there is a check to ensure nothing has fallen behind a machine or under a table, he said. Election workers have their personal items placed in sealed, plastic containers so ballots couldn’t accidentally fall into a bag or purse.
Ballots are also constantly audited while being processed. “By auditing, we are counting the ballots as they come in from the post office and we are recounting them as they are passed to different workers. If a discrepancy arises, an immediate search would begin,” he said.
“No one person is ever left alone with a ballot. We have a two-worker rule. If a ballot ever needed to move to another room, two people would need to be with the ballot during transport.” In addition, the room where ballots are opened and counted is under video surveillance for security purposes, he added. During the election, this video is live-streamed on the auditor’s office webpage for public viewing.
“This is important for transparency,” Andrews said of the live-streaming. “It gives you a window into what we are doing.”
Potential problems in other states
While Andrews sees the election process running smoothly locally, he is not as confident about how things will go in other parts of the country.
“With other jurisdictions around the country changing how they do things, it’s concerning because now they are having to learn something new without a lot of practice. Post offices in different jurisdictions that have never had to do a vote-by-mail scenario are concerned they will be overwhelmed because it’s never happened. And, I understand that.”
State election officials led by Washington’s secretary of state have been working with their counterparts across the country who are facing their first vote-by-mail election, Andrews said.
County auditors across Washington state formed a task force late last year and put together the best practices for managing a vote-by-mail election, he said. State election officials then met with and discussed these practices with officials from other states who are facing mail-in voting for the first time.
“As COVID picked up, [discussions with officials in other states] became more intensified because then they were looking at a COVID scenario,” he said.
Ballots will be mailed to registered voters Oct 14.
“We will see more ballots this election than we have ever seen,” the auditor predicted, attributing the increase to population growth and increased interest in the election.
An estimated 85 percent of registered voters, or 155,000 individuals, will return their ballots this election. That is the same percentage of voters overall who turned in ballots during the last presidential election — but an increase from 136,000 voters, he said.
Voters can track the progress of their returned ballot by logging on to VoteWA.gov, where they will be able to confirm their ballot has been received and processed by election officials. The Kitsap County Elections Division website can be accessed at kitsapgov.com/auditor/Pages/elections.aspx.