Election worker Karen Mosman makes sure ballots are properly divided by declared party during ballot processing for the presidential primary on Thursday at the Snohomish County Elections Office in Everett. The primary is the only Washington election that requires ballots to be separated by party, since voters can only choose one candidate from one of two parties. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Election worker Karen Mosman makes sure ballots are properly divided by declared party during ballot processing for the presidential primary on Thursday at the Snohomish County Elections Office in Everett. The primary is the only Washington election that requires ballots to be separated by party, since voters can only choose one candidate from one of two parties. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

What happens to your presidential primary ballot? An inside look

See how the Snohomish County Auditor’s Office adheres to a number of safeguards to make your vote count.

EVERETT — Many voters may not think twice about what happens to their ballot once they’ve sent it in.

But at the Snohomish County Auditor’s Office in downtown Everett, receiving the ballots is just the start of a process meant to ensure the security and accuracy of the election results. That process has extra steps in a presidential primary.

In 2019, state legislators moved Washington’s primary from May to March — with the goal of giving Washingtonians more influence on the candidates.

But in this year’s primary on Tuesday, March 12, voters will have few viable options.

With Nikki Haley’s exit from the Republican race this week, former President Donald Trump is the only candidate running a campaign on the ticket. The ghosts of once-hopeful presidential campaigns will appear on the ballot, however, such as Chris Christie, Haley and Ron DeSantis.

President Joe Biden’s incumbent campaign has faced a contingent of voters who intend to cast “uncommitted” ballots, in large part as a statement in favor of a ceasefire in Gaza. Biden’s overwhelming majority of delegates so far makes him the obvious favorite for the Democratic nomination.

After the last presidential election, many supporters of Trump denied the validity of the result, culminating in a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

The Snohomish County Auditor’s Office allows people to observe ballot-counting in person at 3000 Rockefeller Ave.

Auditor Garth Fell also gave The Daily Herald an overview of the process, so you can have a better idea of what happens to your ballot once it leaves your hands.

Sorting

In the presidential primary, the race you’re voting in is determined by the party you choose.

Unlike many other states, Washington voters don’t declare party affiliation when they register to vote. Instead, voters must indicate their party preference on the envelope in which they mail their ballot.

Those party affiliations will be public record for 60 days after the election is certified.

What if a voter selects neither party?

The ballot will be challenged, meaning it can’t be processed. The auditor’s office will notify the voter of the issue and give them the chance to correct it.

“For most issues with a ballot, they are curable or resolvable,” Fell said.

Some issues can’t be resolved, like declaring affiliation for both parties or voting for candidates in the party that wasn’t selected.

When ballots arrive at the auditor’s office, they’re first sorted by party. Staff members manually divide Democratic and Republican ballots.

From that point on, ballots from different parties will be kept separate. In the office, certain tables have either blue or red tags. If a worker is switching from handling Democratic ballots to Republican ones, they must move to a table with a red tag.

“We’re running two concurrent elections: the Democratic primary and the Republican primary,” county Elections Manager Matthew Pangburn said.

Signature verification and ballot opening

Staff members work in pairs to compare signatures on the ballots to those on file in the voter registration system.

Most of the time, the signature on file comes from the state Department of Licensing. If someone signed a paper to register to vote, that signature will also be on their record.

Staff can also compare with signatures accepted from past ballots.

Signature verifiers are trained by handwriting experts from the Washington State Patrol. Another staffer will review a signature if there is an issue.

Less than 0.25% of ballots face challenges because the signatures don’t match, Fell said. Another issue comes when people forget to sign their ballot altogether.

In both cases, the auditor’s office will send a letter to notify the voter they can correct the problem. If the voter has provided an email or phone number, they’ll also get notifications that way.

Ballots with accepted signatures go through to the next stage, where another group of staff members check to make sure they were sorted correctly by party.

Then, the ballots go out to “openers,” who first check the party affiliation again. They then pull the ballot out of the envelope and check for anomalies.

For example, Fell said, every election a few people will return an envelope without a ballot inside. Openers must make a note of that to explain why the number of votes doesn’t match the number of envelopes.

Tabulation time

In the auditor’s office, Clear Ballot scanning machines are housed in a literal chain-link cage. It takes at least two employees to open the cage — just one keycard won’t work. Overnight, staff keep a numbered seal wrapped around the cage doors to ensure nobody goes in.

Prior to March 12, ballots can be scanned into the system, but staff can’t tabulate the results until election night. The tabulation system is not connected to the internet, only to a server inside the cage. Locks within the system prevent staff from accessing the results unless two designated employees put in their passwords.

Adjudicators check the ballots flagged for review by either openers or the computer.

Among other checks, they will make sure ballots only contain votes for the party declared on the envelope.

When it comes to unusual ballot markings, Washington is a “voter intent” state, meaning a vote is counted if the voter’s intention is clear. So voters are supposed to fill in the bubble for their candidate, but if they instead circle candidates consistently throughout their ballot, that counts too.

In this election, there are no declared write-in candidates. That means if you vote for a write-in candidate, your vote essentially does not count.

“We understand there are some people that have said that they are going to fill in the write-in bubble and write something on the line as a protest vote, and people can do that,” Fell said. “It’s just it doesn’t count for any of the candidates, it’s not gonna be seen by anybody … but maybe the person scanning a ballot or maybe a person that’s opening up a ballot. Doesn’t go any further than that.”

On election night, staff will trigger the vote-counting system to tabulate preliminary results. The auditor’s office will have 10 days after the election to certify the results.

Ballots are due at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Sophia Gates: 425-339-3035; sophia.gates@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @SophiaSGates.

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