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Think voting by mail is secure in Washington state? Here's what we found

The Bellingham Herald logoThe Bellingham Herald 10/21/2020 By Robert Mittendorf, The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.)

Elections officials say Washington state voters can be certain that their votes will count and the Nov. 3 election will be fair, despite unsubstantiated claims of widespread ballot fraud from President Trump and others.

Security measures aim to prevent cheating and interference at every step of the way -- from voter registration and the mailing and collection of completed ballots, to the tabulation process and reporting of results.

"There's a lot of checks and balances," Whatcom County Auditor Diana Bradrick told McClatchy.

Security measures include these steps:

-- Voters must sign their ballot envelopes, and their signatures are checked against voter records before the envelope is separated from the ballot, which is enclosed in a blank privacy sleeve.

-- Ballot boxes have numbered seals that are recorded in a book, and ballots are removed with teams of two people.

-- Ballots are processed and scanned but not tabulated until after the polls have closed.

-- Each county's tabulation system is "air-gapped" from the internet to thwart outside hacking.

-- Ballot counts are uploaded to the Secretary of State's Office with fresh USB drives and the counts are checked before and after the results are uploaded.

Growing popularity

Counties in Washington state have had the option of all-mail voting since 2005, and vote-by-mail elections became state law in 2011, after 38 of 39 counties had taken that step.

Locally elected nonpartisan county auditors, who manage elections under direction of the Secretary of State's Office, have worked the kinks out of the process, Bradrick said.

Voting by mail has gained considerable attention this year amid the coronavirus pandemic as Americans seek to avoid crowded voting centers and waiting in long lines.

In the 2016 presidential election, almost one-quarter of all votes nationwide were cast by mail, according to data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an independent government agency.

More than half of ballots were cast by mail in 37 state primaries this year where data was available, according to the Pew Research Center.

Nine U.S. states will conduct their Nov. 3 elections primarily by mail, according to a CNN analysis, and 36 more states will send voters a mail-in or "absentee" ballot if they ask.

Only five states -- Indiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas -- require an excuse to receive an absentee or mail ballot.

An Oct. 9 report by the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank, graded states according to their vote-by-mail performance.

Washington state gets an "A."

Election "100%" secure

Washington state Elections Director Lori Augino said voters can be confident that the process is safe and secure.

"One hundred percent, absolutely," Augino told McClatchy in an interview. "What you see happening here in Washington is pretty special and pretty unique."

Augino said that Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican in a majority Democratic state, has been using her position to reassure voters across the nation about the safety of voting by mail.

"We need to make sure we're inspiring confidence in the public that this is a fair election. And the way you do that is balancing access and security," Wyman told National Public Radio in August.

But that doesn't mean that there isn't actual fraud, Augino said.

"It is not zero, but it's not rampant," she said.

After the 2018 election, 142 instances of possible election fraud -- out of more than 3 million votes cast statewide in the 2018 general election -- were forwarded to county prosecutors and sheriffs for investigation, Augino said.

Election fraud is different from voter suppression -- which is limiting the ability of people to vote -- and election meddling with false claims that question the integrity of the process, Bradrick said.

Such misinformation is coming mostly from Trump, the Republican National Committee, and Fox News, according to a new study from Harvard's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.

Trump's claims

Voting by mail has been particularly questioned by Trump, who claimed in the first presidential debate -- without evidence -- "This is going to be a fraud like you've never seen."

Wyman rebuked the president in a July 30 statement after he began to question the process.

"The president's and attorney general's continued consternation with vote-by-mail is precisely why I invite them to come to Washington state to see first-hand how my office and Washington's 39 county election officials have worked diligently to build in robust security measures so people can vote safely this fall," Wyman said.

Postal Service

One factor that could affect mailed ballots is the speed of delivery.

U.S. Postal Service Director Louis DeJoy, a major Trump donor appointed in June, was criticized for reducing the number of sorting machines in large mail centers and taking other steps that some said were slowing mail service.

In a lawsuit settled Oct. 14, DeJoy agreed to reverse those changes, according to The Associated Press.

"In Washington, we met with representatives of the U.S. Postal Service, who assured us -- and we believe them, the secretary of state was involved and all the (39) auditors -- and they said, 'Look, you're going to get the same service you've always gotten,'" Bradrick told the Bellingham City Club in an Oct. 7 presentation on election security.

But that doesn't mean that voters can drop their ballots in a mailbox on Election Day and expect them to be postmarked on time, she said.

"Pay attention to the last pickup time (on the mailbox)," Bradrick said. "Anything deposited after that last pickup time is going to get tomorrow's postmark. We really encourage people not to take their ballots to the mail on Election Day."

Closer to Election Day, voters should place their ballots in special drop boxes maintained by county auditors.

There are 18 drop boxes across Whatcom County and 65% of voters used that method in the 2019 election, according to data from the Secretary of State's Office. Thurston has 29 ballot boxes, Pierce has 46 and Benton and Franklin have 10 and six, respectively.

Whatcom complaint

In Whatcom County, Republican state Rep. Luanne Van Werven accused her Democratic challenger Alicia Rule of collusion with mail carriers in July when Rule posted on social media a photo of her campaign advertisement wrapped around her ballot, which arrived in the mail on the same day.

Van Werven filed complaints with the state Public Disclosure Commission and the Secretary of State's Office, but the investigation was forwarded to federal officials because the issue involved U.S. mail.

Postal inspectors quickly dismissed Van Werven's allegations, saying it is carriers' standard practice to wrap larger items such as Rule's mailer around smaller pieces of mail.

Rule told The Bellingham Herald that she had timed the mailing of her campaign materials to coincide with the scheduled ballot mailing.

Registration, access, ballots

In Whatcom County, 155,616 people were registered to vote through Oct. 16 according to the auditor's website -- the highest amount ever, Bradrick said.

That's 5,000 more potential voters than the 150,515 residents who registered for the Aug. 4 primary.

Statewide, more than 4.7 million voters were registered through Oct. 1.

Washington state residents can register to vote until 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Registration for current residents can be completed at VoteWa.gov until Oct. 26, but it must be done in person after that.

Several forms of identification are accepted, including a driver's license, a state ID for non-drivers, or the last four digits of a resident's Social Security number.

A "heavy-duty firewall" protects the registration system, Bradrick said.

Voter signatures are drawn from driver's licenses or registration applications, and that's a key to future elections because voters must sign their ballot envelope and those signatures are checked against the ones on file before a ballot is accepted for tabulation.

Some 800 Whatcom County ballots were rejected out of 92,436 ballots cast in the August 2020 primary for several reasons, including that the signatures didn't match or they were marked haphazardly, Whatcom County Elections Supervisor Amy Grasher told The Herald in an email.

Ballots were mailed to all active registered voters on Oct. 14.

Voters who don't get a ballot in the mail are asked to call their local county auditor's office to request one.

They can also go online to VoteWa.gov and make sure that their registration is active and their mailing address is correct.

Ballots can be returned by mail in the postage-paid envelope or placed in official ballot drop boxes. Voters can check to see if their ballots have been returned and accepted at VoteWA.gov.

Ballots delivered

In a new step, plainclothes security officials will be watching Whatcom County ballot drop boxes this election season, Bradrick told The Herald in an email.

Uniformed personnel aren't used because of the possibility that voters could see this as a form of intimidation, she said.

Teams of two people get ballots from the post office and empty the ballot drop boxes.

Those drop boxes have numbered seals on the inside and outside that must be unbroken, and the numbers also must match a corresponding seal number in a log book.

"They'll verify that the seals they took off are the ones they put in last time," Bradrick said.

There's also a log book in the sealed box where the ballots are placed for transport to the Auditor's Office.

"If (the numbers have been) changed -- Houston, we've got a problem," Bradrick said.

Ballot drop boxes are sealed at 8 p.m. on Election Day and won't accept late ballots.

Postmarks, signature checks

When ballots arrive at election headquarters, they are "faced" and placed on trays for signature checks.

"Now, you've got at least two people" working together, Bradrick said. "There's never one person in a room with live ballots. Everything that's done from then on is with multiple people."

Postmarks are checked on ballots that arrive by mail after Election Day.

Ballots must be postmarked -- not simply mailed -- before 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Those that arrive after Election Day will be counted, as long as their postmark is valid.

More than 600 Whatcom County ballots were disqualified because of late postmarks in the August primary, Grasher said.

"It breaks my heart to have ballots come in late," Bradrick said at the City Club meeting.

Once the postmark and signature are verified, the ballot and its envelope are separated.

"Somebody sits there and checks all those signatures," Bradrick said.

She said elections staff is trained in signature verification by forensics experts at the Washington State Patrol.

Ballots are in a security sleeve so no one can see how anyone voted.

"There's nothing on the actual ballot that tells us who the voter is. That's on the envelope," Bradrick said.

Signatures that don't match are set aside, and a letter goes to the registered voter letting them know that their signature has been challenged.

Voters have until the election is certified to fix or "cure" a challenged signature.

Ballots are scanned into a closed computer system as they as accepted, but they are not tabulated so no one knows the results.

"(Poll workers) look at them and make sure there's not food or anything on them," Bradrick said. "Then they're flattened and fed into the scanner. It's not counting or tallying. That doesn't happen until election night."

The data

Bradrick said scanned ballots "sit in the system until election night at 8 o'clock when we run the tally. That information, it's not networked."

Such a closed or air-gapped system isn't connected to the internet, so the numbers can't be hacked or changed from the outside.

Once the ballots are tabulated, they are downloaded to new USB flash drives supplied by the Secretary of State's Office and then uploaded on a separate networked computer system.

"We when we upload to the state, we're doing it with a new flash drive-- we use a clean flash drive every time," Bradrick said.

Once the numbers are received and before they are publicly posted, they are verified against the totals from county system.

Further scrutiny of machine-tabulated ballot counts comes with manual verification of those counts by checking batches of ballots selected by election observers.

"We do random hand counts of six batches on the Thursday after the election," Bradrick said. "We're comparing numbers all the time."

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©2020 The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.)

Visit The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.) at www.bellinghamherald.com

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