Ballots’ journey juggles security, transparency

October 25, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Odyssey leads from Everett printer to voter to Renton office

King County Elections places a huge mail order each year.

Officials must secure enough ballots for more than 1 million voters spread across a county larger than Rhode Island. Then, the elections office is responsible for ensuring a secure — and hassle-free — process to distribute, authenticate and tally ballots on a strict deadline.

Matthew Chan uses a practiced flip of the wrists to levitate voter ballots from a tray onto a sorting machine at King County Elections in Renton during the August primary. By Greg Farrar

The complicated process starts on a printing press in Everett and ends in a tabulation machine in Renton. The voter is situated in the middle, black ink pen at the ready.

The job to print almost 1.1 million ballots is delegated to a commercial printer. The elections office oversees the process as Everett-based K&H Election Services prints and inserts ballots into envelopes.

The printer creates ballots for King County and jurisdictions across the United States. Then, ballots stacked on pallets await shipment to voters.
“At any given time, you can see boxes that are shrink-wrapped with ballots that go to all different kinds of counties,” King County Elections spokeswoman Kim van Ekstrom said.

About 20 days before Election Day, as TV campaign advertisements reach cruel-and-unusual-punishment status, the U.S. Postal Service starts to mail ballot packets to voters.

Each packet contains a signature envelope, security envelope and ballot. The arrangement is meant to ensure voters’ anonymity as elections staffers open, authenticate and tabulate ballots.

Ballots do not emerge from behind a security cordon until postal employees send the oversized envelopes through the mail.

Security measures shield ballots

Nov. 8 is the deadline to slip a completed ballot in the mailbox or a drop box. The simple act launches a complex and much-scrutinized journey to the elections office in Renton.

The security setup is part “Mission: Impossible” and part common sense.

King County Elections staffers travel in pairs to retrieve ballot packets from ballot drop boxes.

Trucks must pass through a secure gate and a concertina-wire-topped chain-link fence to deliver completed ballots to the elections office.

If you go

See elections staffers process ballots from the viewing loop at King County Elections, 919 S.W. Grady Way, Renton. The loop is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and features extended hours on Nov. 8, Election Day. Call 206-296-8683.

On the Web

King County Elections mailed ballots to voters Oct. 19. Track ballots online at the King County Elections website, Follow the “Track your ballot packet” link.

Inside, electronic key cards and biometric controls to authenticate fingerprints limit access to ballots and processing areas. Crews transport returned packets in a separate elevator from the loading zone to the processing area. The building lacks wireless Internet access to limit possible information leaks.

The office maintains a strict policy to require employees and guests to don color-coded lanyards to determine security clearance.

“So, from a distance, at a glance, if we don’t recognize somebody, we know what type of employee they are and basically where they should be in the building,” van Ekstrom said.

The security system includes more than 20 cameras aimed at crucial areas 24/7 and a sophisticated alarm system on doors and sensitive areas.

“We have a total chain of custody for watching over and tracking all of the ballots that come back to us,” van Ekstrom said.

Staffers then sort ballot packets into batches — 200 to 400 ballots apiece — by legislative district. The office also records a digital image of each voter’s signature for verification.

Employees do not open a ballot until the signature is checked against a voter’s registration. Specialists check for similarities — such as letter height and spacing — between the registration and the ballot. If the signatures match, the packet proceeds to the next step. If a signature problem arises, a staffer contacts the voter.

Transparency is encouraged

Opening a ballot packet is a multistep process. Once the security envelope is removed from the signature envelope, a staffer opens the security envelope and pulls out the completed ballot.

The team then inspects the ballot for stray marks, corrections or to see if the voter used a forbidden ink color. (Only a black ink pen is acceptable.)

If a ballot is damaged and cannot pass through tabulation equipment, the elections office follows a guide in a state-approved voter intent manual to duplicate the ballot. If a voter’s intent is unclear on the damaged ballot, staffers send the document to the county Canvassing Board for further discussion.

Then, as completed and OK’d packets reach the elections office, staffers scan ballots. Officials tabulate the scanned images and release the results at about 8 p.m. on Election Day. More results follow after Election Day as the office tabulates additional ballots.

Before each election, officials invite political party observers and reporters to a logic and accuracy test — a process to determine if scanning and tabulation equipment functions properly.

Come election season, King County Elections is open for public access. Guests can peer inside the processing area from a loop around the outside. Only a partial Plexiglas panel separates guests from the process, so people can see and listen to elections staffers at work.

Observers from political parties act as watchdogs throughout the process.

“We’re very transparent. We’re very secure. But our transparency is also a part of our security,” van Ekstrom said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or Comment at

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