Kitsap County officials busy counting votes for Feb. 14 election

Ballots are due by 8 p.m. Feb. 14. (Sara Miller/Kitsap News Group)

As ballots for the South Kitsap School Board election for a new bond and re-upped levy continue to be submitted until the 8 p.m. deadline, the Kitsap County Auditors office is making sure every ballot is counted efficiently and accurately.

Elections Division Manager Kyle Joyce said their system is accurate and reliable to ensure they give out the most accurate results in a timely manner.

“We have a lot of accountability steps taken,” he said.

It all starts when ballots are dropped off or mailed to the elections office. (Since ballots are due by 8 p.m. Feb. 14, the only option remaining for voters is to drop off their envelopes in one of the three designated drop-off boxes before the deadline.)

The three ballot drop boxes are at the Kitsap County Administration Building, 619 Division St., and South Kitsap Fire and Rescue, 1974 Fircrest Drive, and 7990 McCormick Woods Drive. And although some may be more convenient, Joyce said the administration building’s box is the most used.

“People are creatures of habit,” he said. “People love coming to this one so we keep emptying it.”

Once the ballots are dropped off, they’re run through a machine to capture the voters’ signatures. Every signature is verified by someone who has had training from the Washington State Patrol in order to check a voter’s identity.

Three voter signatures are shown on a page at a time with two versions each. The top signature on the screen shows what is on file when someone registers to vote. The bottom shows the signature on the submitted ballot.

“This piece of equipment allows us to marry the two,” Joyce said. “In the old days, we had to hold the ballot up to the screen, which wasn’t very efficient, even though it worked. It went from probably being an hour endeavor to now, probably 20 minutes.”

If a signature doesn’t match in a verifier’s opinion, it is marked. However, that isn’t the final say for each ballot. Even if a ballot is marked “challenged,” other eyes see the signature before the canvassing board makes the ultimate decision.

“No one person has the authority to ‘reject’ a ballot,” Joyce said. “I think that’s an important distinction.”

Once signatures are checked, ballots are then sent back through the machine to be sorted into “consolidated precincts” (CP). Kitsap County is broken up into 11 areas. South Kitsap occupies areas 1, 2 and 3 on the CP.

The reason it’s split up is so if there was ever a need for a recount, the office wouldn’t have to get every ballot from the county, but only focus on the area the recount is taking place.

“We don’t need the CP very often, but when we need it, we really need it,” Joyce said.

If ballots are labeled “challenged,” the ballots go to the front office for more research and to contact the voter for an updated signature.

If the ballots have gone through, they are sent to the opening phase.

The first step is to take the secrecy sleeve and ballot out of the envelope. Once the envelopes are out of the way, the ballots and secrecy sleeves are opened one at a time to ensure voters privacy.

“The only person who knows how you voted, unless you told somebody, is you,” Joyce said. “That’s very important to us. Some people vote one way and tell people they voted another, and that’s their right to do that.”

The next step is to check the ballots to make sure there aren’t any issues to keep it from going through the scanning equipment, such as boxes not being properly filled in.

“Some voters circle ‘yes’ instead of filling in the box, and that vote still counts,” Joyce said. “But it won’t get picked up by our equipment, so we have to process it a special way to make sure of the voters intent.”

Once done opening the ballots, they are sorted into two groups — one of which is called “ready to scan.” That means the voter followed directions or didn’t include any write-ins. (There are no write-ins this election because there are no candidates).

The other stack, which is much smaller, is called “further review.” In this stack, the voter used pencil, circle or underlined instead of filling in the box, placed excess marks in the barcode, or made marks that weren’t allowed in the voter directions.

The counters have to use a different process for these.

“We have a big stack of rules that we follow from the Secretary of State to help us determine what the voters intent is,” Joyce said.

Once that’s done, ballots are sent to the tabulation room to be scanned into the system. In this room, there is no internet connection or a way to get official results. This equipment simply allows the ballots to be scanned ahead of time.

“It’s all been certified by the state and federal government,” Joyce said.

As early as 2012, ballots couldn’t be scanned until the day before the election in case of a leak. However, now, they can scan weeks ahead of time as the ballots come in.

“We’ve been scanning for two weeks,” Joyce said. “It allows us to keep up on it, and allows us to have a much better result on election night.”

While they won’t have the final result or be the person to officially call an election, they will have a decent idea.

“We have a great staff I’d bet my life on,” Joyce said.

Initial election results will be posted at 8:15 p.m. Feb. 14 on the Kitsap County Elections website.