PORT ORCHARD – County election officials met Thursday afternoon to consider what to do with special election ballots that were postmarked late due to weather.
Two hundred and eighty-five ballots received Thursday bore postmarks after the Feb. 12 deadline for the recent special election, raising questions about whether they could legally be counted. As more ballots continued to trickle in late in the week, it was possible more late-postmarked ballots could arrive in coming days.
A record snowfall that began Friday, Feb. 8 hampered the United States Postal Service in their mail collection and processing across the region.
Complicating matters, election officials were not kept fully abreast of the mail situation on election day, County Auditor Paul Andrews said.
“We were originally told on election day that the post office was operating normally,” Andrews said. “They told us later in the day that they had actually been experiencing disruptions in their service since Friday.”
On Thursday, Feb. 14, vote counters received 631 ballots, 285 of which were processed in Tacoma. The ballots processed in Tacoma bore postmarks of Feb. 13, the day after the election.
The Postal Service said in an email to the county auditor that the late ballots had all been collected on the previous day. But Andrews said he was looking for confirmation to bring to the Canvassing Board, a voting body that decides on election questions. By law, ballots must be mailed on or before election day.
“Did it pass midnight and their machine changed the date automatically?” he asked. “I’m just trying to get clarification on how that worked, and if there’s a way of being able to identify in the barcode that they were in their possession” by Tuesday, he said.
While 285 votes would not change the outcome of any of the four ballot measures for schools and EMS levies that were approved acrosss the county, the decision could set a precedent for future elections.
“If we let the weather impact our decision, it would set a precedent,” Andrews said. “If we decide that we are going to accept a late postmark, we may be making that based on weather this time, but it may not be a weather situation next time.”
It would also be important to citizens to know that their votes were counted whether or not they affected the election outcome, officials pointed out.
The Canvassing Board, a three-person voting body that conducts official election assessments, will meet next week to address the allegedly late ballots and any other contested ballots. The meeting will take place on Feb. 21, at 9 a.m. at the county administrative building.
County prosecutor Chad Enright was present at the meeting this week and is providing legal counsel to the board.
As of Feb. 14, the smallest margin of victory among any of the four recent ballot measures came in the Bremerton schools levy vote, which was ahead by just under 1,000 votes. Additional levies for Central Kitsap and Bainbridge Island schools were approved, as was a tax to support Bainbridge EMS.
Andrews said that despite the snow, which accumulated up to a foot or more across the county and left thousands of residents homebound for days, election turnout of about 33 percent of registered voters was comparable to previous special elections, helped by Washington’s vote-by-mail system.
“Turnout was encouraging, considering what we were expecting,” Andrews said.
Gabe Stutman is a reporter with the Kitsap News Group. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.