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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Wonkacious View of Your Vote-Processing Factory

posted by on November 4 at 13:05 PM

We’re down at King County Election Headquarters in Renton, where about 500 people are working feverishly to count your absentee votes. According to Bobbie Egan, the spokeswoman giving us a tour, King County receives the second most absentee ballots of any county in the nation (beat only by L.A. County).

This is your vote-processing factory. It’s a new building (opened Dec. 1, 2007) tricked out with 59 security cameras, a high-security inner area, and an outer perimeter loop where anyone can come and watch.


According to Egan, voter turnout is expected to be 85 percent today, up from 83 percent in 2004. In this building today, about 80,000 to 100,000 absentee ballots will be counted to be reported at 8:15 pm. That should count for about 39 percent of the total. The count is not expected to be 97 percent complete until next Tuesday.

Here’s how it works. The ballots come up from a big mailroom warehouse to be sliced (in the top machine) and sorted by Pitney Bowes postal machines (seen behind the crate).



The Pitney Bowes machine sorts the ballots by legislative district into batches of about 200. Each ballot stays with its batch its entire counting cycle. A cheerful man named Muhammadu Kora is one of the people who carries your ballot onward.


The Pitney Bowes machine also takes a digital picture of the signature on the outside of the ballot. Those pictures are sent to another team out in the main room, where workers trained in signature verification vet them against your voting record.


If there is a signature “miscompare,” you get one of these yellow letters in the mail.


If not, your ballot goes to the openers. They take the security envelope out, remove the ballot, and stack the security envelopes on a giant twist tie that goes through the center hole in each security envelope. This hole-in-the-middle design was created after the 2004 election, when in the recount workers discovered security envelopes that still had ballots in them, unremoved and uncounted. Here’s Mary Isabell doing her twist-tie thing.


The openers determine whether there’s been undervoting or overvoting. If there’s overvoting, the ballots have to be duplicated by hand by election workers (both the original and the copy are coded and saved for reference). Finally the ballots go to the tabulation room, where they’re fed into a little tabletop reading machine one batch at a time. Kathstacie Green is running a machine. If the machine detects trouble, it stops and Green checks the marks herself.


“The Cage,” where the ballots are stored, was designed in consultation with high-security casino experts. To get in you have to be on a list, swipe your card, and have your fingerprint tested. (You can use either pointer finger; both are on record in case one is burned off or cut off.)


Three things:

1. The Whites. When we were there, one lonely family was walking the loop. Homeschoolers Joelle White of Des Moines and her husband brought their daughters, 11 and 8, to check it out. The older daughter said the loop is inconveniently shaped. The younger daughter wishes she could touch things, because, as her mother added, she is a kinesthetic learner.

2. The blacks. We realize we ended up with more pictures of black election workers than whites. This is not by accident. It seemed like were lots of black election workers.

3. Christmas music. The Renton Tully’s where we are filing this report is playing it.

RSS icon Comments



Come on, people!

Posted by Christian Patriot | November 4, 2008 1:12 PM

This is super-interesting (and pretty reassuring in light of stolen-vote paranoia). Thanks for giving us the scoop.

Posted by Princess of Hope | November 4, 2008 1:14 PM

A man named Muhammadu carries our BALOTS! They have infiltrated every corner of our society!!!!

Posted by ParanoidPatty | November 4, 2008 1:20 PM

And Starbucks have the Christmas Cups out already.... UGH!!

Posted by Cato the Younger Younger | November 4, 2008 1:20 PM

that was a fun trip thru the process! thanks!

Posted by teddy b | November 4, 2008 1:22 PM

Hey, I think I see my ballot in that pile on the left!

Great pics and story - thanks.

Posted by cdc | November 4, 2008 1:26 PM

Excellent report, Thank-You!

Posted by Sue | November 4, 2008 1:29 PM

Excellent report, Thank-You!

Posted by Sue | November 4, 2008 1:30 PM

that's pretty awesome, thanks for posting this!

Posted by angelika | November 4, 2008 1:36 PM

I have a question: If there is a problem with your signature matching the one they have on file, what is your recourse? I see they send out a notice. Then do you sign off in person or what?

I'm totally paranoid about my signatures matching given that I can be a sloppy writer and it seems my penmanship varies daily

Posted by Kayla | November 4, 2008 1:36 PM

kayla: you get the letter which i believe gives you an option to come in and give a new signature in person, and maybe some other option...i can't quite remember. you can call king county elections voter services at 206.296.VOTE for the exacts.

Posted by jezbian | November 4, 2008 1:47 PM

Jesus, homeschoolers are largely insufferable

Posted by CM | November 4, 2008 1:55 PM

Kayla @10 - my husband's absentee ballot signature did not match correctly, so he got one of the letters. He went down there, and the elections worker showed him the mismatch (it wasn't surprising, he said, as his signature is somewhat different from the way it looked in 1971, when he first registered). He filed a new signature card using photo ID, and all is now copacetic.

This is the first year they're checking the signature matches this closely. Correcting it is either a matter of signing the affidavit that comes with the letter and attaching a photocopy of the required ID, or going down to the Renton elections office (which is the method I'd recommend).

Posted by Geni | November 4, 2008 1:56 PM

Thanks! That eases my mind

Posted by Kayla | November 4, 2008 1:56 PM

I get that letter for every election, because I never have the same signature twice.

Last election I changed my signature registration card to "X" and the clerk threw a big hissy fit saying I couldn't do that, but she said she'd file it.

This election I signed with an X.

What happens when your signature doesn't match is they send you a letter. That letter has several methods of validating the ballot, including sending a photocopy of some ID, which isn't really checked to see if it is valid. (which validates voters how? if a signature was forged, it is just as easy to forge a photocopy of ID). Another method to validate the ballot is to show up in person, in Renton, with ID.

The other part of the equation is time. They have to have the entire election and ballots certified within a few weeks. It takes them a few weeks to do all the signature matching. Generally you will get the letter that your signature doesn't match either after the election is certified, so you are SOL, or with only a single day to get the letter back to them, necessitating a large Fed-Ex bill for overnight service, or a long trek to Renton in person.

Posted by StC | November 4, 2008 2:03 PM

Cool post; thank you Slog!

Posted by Non | November 4, 2008 2:04 PM

I've always wondered what happens if you forget the security envelope. I almost forgot it this time, then pried my envelope back open just in case.

Posted by josh | November 4, 2008 2:10 PM

the security envelope is NOT required when you return your ballot - it's for your comfort/security/etc only. ballots MUST be returned with the outer envelope with your information and signature on it though.

Posted by jezbian | November 4, 2008 2:24 PM

any news on other counties that are all-mail ballot?

Posted by Gordon | November 4, 2008 2:39 PM

One of the most relevant bits of reporting I've read recently. Thanks!

Posted by James Jackhammer | November 4, 2008 4:48 PM

"..., homeschoolers are largely insufferable."
C M - if you'd said that about any other ethnic or cultural minority, you'd be branded a bigot because you're generalizing. As for myself and my family, we actually had a lot of positive things to say about watching the votes being counted. The reporter chose not to share those comments. Perhaps she was angling for a negative to balance out her largely positive article. Presenting both aspects of something is good journalism. I don't presume to judge her motives, and I'm sorry that it seems to have bolstered your prejudice.

Having said that, I'll leave you with this. I don't usually get along very well with other homeschoolers, so I sympathize ;-)


Posted by White Homeschool Mom | November 6, 2008 9:44 AM

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