Inside the Ballot Processing Center and Its COVID Safeguards

by Ashley Archibald

(This article was originally published by Real Change and has been reprinted with permission.)

From the exterior, the King County Elections headquarters resembles a drab office building, gray and in an industrial part of Renton, across from a used car dealership.

On the inside, however, officials want the public to think of it as the Fort Knox of elections.

King County, like the rest of the U.S., is careening toward one of the most anticipated elections in modern history. By Nov. 3, the Electoral College will either reelect President Donald Trump or replace him with former Vice President Joe Biden.

With two weeks left to go and millions of votes already cast, the legitimacy of the election is already being called into question.

The message that King County Executive Dow Constantine and King County Elections Director Julie Wise want to convey is that in this house, nobody messes with our ballots.

“Vote. Vote early. And have confidence your vote will be counted accurately and promptly,” Constantine told reporters.

Entering the building during a recent press tour, visitors were greeted by a tablet that scans their temperature — a precaution against the coronavirus. They were then given a pass with a bright pink lanyard to identify them as approved before being escorted up a flight of stairs to the second floor.

To get in or out of that area, they need an approved King County employee with a keycard authorized to pass a biometric scan.

The first thing that greets them on the inside is a steel cage where uncounted ballots will be held, with fencing that reaches the ceiling. That caging goes past the second floor and down through the building to prevent any nefarious access. It also is equipped with keycard and biometric scanners.

Ballots then flow through a machine that scans the individualized bar code and photographs signatures at a rate of 40,000 per hour. A second pass-through opens the ballots, which are then removed by hand before going through two machines that read each ballot and send the information to secure servers.

Only nine people are allowed access to the server room, again secured with keycard and biometric scanners. Even Wise does not have authorization to enter.

That server room does not touch the outside internet. Information flows through a bundle of purple cables that snake across the ceiling.

If it sounds a little “Ocean’s 11,” it is. The security systems were created with a team of security and cybersecurity experts, some of whom consult for casinos, Wise said.

The 2020 election comes with another factor to guard against, beyond attempts at vote tampering: the coronavirus.

In normal circumstances, workers fill the second floor, opening ballots, verifying signatures, running the machines. There’s usually a wall of plexiglass a fifth-of-a-mile long encircling the room so that the public can observe the process in person, although webcams dot corners of the room to livestream for those stuck at home.

There’re a lot more plastic barriers this year, Wise said.

“There’s also areas where we’ve reconfigured where they work in teams of two,” Wise said.

Instead of sitting side by side, workers work across from one another behind a plexiglass partition. They will have masks, hand sanitizer, and access to gloves.

This will limit the number of people who can be in the facility at any given time to ensure social distancing. That will make the process slower, Wise said.

“We still think we’re going to be caught up with the ballots by the Friday of election week. That’s our goal; that’s our mission here. Voters can help us with that by voting early,” Wise said.

The only way for these safety and security measures to matter, of course, is for the ballot to arrive at the election headquarters.

First, you have to get a ballot.

In Washington State, voters can register online or through the mail up to eight days before the election, according to the Secretary of State. After that, they can register or update their registration in person up until 8 p.m. on Nov. 3, when all ballots must be received.

Same-day voter registration is relatively new. It officially launched in 2019, further enfranchising Washington residents up to and on Election Day. The state also allows “motor voter” registration, which allows people to register to vote when they get their Washington state driver’s license. Furthermore, a “future voter” program preregisters 16- and 17-year-olds, though they cannot vote until they are 18.

To register, a voter must be 18 years old and a U.S. citizen with a valid driver’s license, social security number, or state-issued ID. They can’t have been disqualified from voting by a court or be under the supervision of the State Department of Corrections for a felony offense.

People experiencing homelessness are not disenfranchised. In lieu of a post office box or a physical address, they can put down an intersection or location where they sleep; they will then need to pick up their ballot from the nearby post office or print it out. Many use popular shelters that agree to accept mail, and ballots can be sent to the addresses of friends or family.

Once you’re registered to vote, that ballot still has to get to you. Elections officials project confidence that will not be a problem, despite preliminary warnings in August from none other than the postal service itself.

Over the summer, the United States Postal Service raised alarms about its ability to deliver the deluge of vote-by-mail ballots on time to ensure votes would be counted by election day. The problem wasn’t so much the quantity — USPS delivers hundreds of millions of pieces of mail per day, on average — but the timing.

According to The Washington Post, 40 states received warnings from USPS that “their long-standing deadlines for requesting, returning or counting ballots were ‘incongruous’ with mail service” and could result in voter disenfranchisement.

Layered onto the issue were political overtones. Trump appointee Louis DeJoy presided over USPS just as longstanding plans to remove certain mail processing machines went into action. While the removals were planned prior to DeJoy taking office, he issued orders to cut down on overtime by forcing postal workers to stop working at the end of their shifts, even if mail had not been delivered.

The changes led to a backlog of mail. Reports surfaced of people receiving necessary medications late or missing critical bills. Changes were rescinded soon after, and DeJoy received a withering, public grilling by Rep. Katie Porter (D-California), a freshman member of the House made famous by her use of a whiteboard to take powerful people to task.

Washington’s August primary went off without a hitch, Wise told reporters, and she expects the same of the general election in November.

“I am confident that USPS will get the ballots in,” Wise said, noting that people who are concerned could track their ballots individually and call the office if they believe something is amiss.

Ballots do not need additional postage to go through the mail — a relief to some generations unfamiliar with how to find these elusive “stamps.” Each envelope has prepaid postage, a feature King County adopted before it went statewide.

However, if a voter is still nervous about the mail, they can use one of 73 ballot boxes sprinkled throughout the county.

Each box weighs 1,000 pounds and is bolted into concrete so that it cannot be easily moved. Crosscut political reporter Melissa Santos wrote a piece in October 2019 detailing the creation of ballot boxes in Pierce County that showed a ballot box on its side with a Nissan Pathfinder parked on top.

The ballots inside were secure.

The ballot boxes in King County have no outer pry points and have locking mechanisms and a tamper seal, just to make sure, Wise said.

Two workers drive to empty them Monday through Saturday, armed with a set of safety protocols and instructions to log and seal ballots, said Kendall Hodson, King County Elections chief of staff.

“When your ballot goes into the drop box, it isn’t coming out until we open it,” Wise said.

Political observers and party representatives will likely be monitoring the boxes, and plain-clothes officers will be on watch as well.

Wise has been working with elections offices in other states to help them prepare for the expected massive increase in mailed ballots due to the coronavirus.

King County has had a vote-by-mail system for a decade, with an electronic option for Washingtonians in the military or living abroad, and voter participation is expected to hit a record-high 90% this election.

But public confidence in mail-in voting is mixed and skews across party lines.

A Pew Research poll found that 25% of U.S. adults thought that voter fraud was a “major problem” when it came to voting by mail. That grew to 51% of conservatives and Republican-leaning voters and dropped to just 6% among liberal and Democratic-leaning voters.

Trump has been deriding vote-by-mail — unless you’re in certain key states, apparently — as a major source of voter fraud, although this is not supported by facts but believed by a large portion of conservatives.

Voting in person during the pandemic could be dangerous, but images from across the country have shown people lining up — sometimes for as many as 11 hours — to cast their ballots during early voting.

According to CNN, a record-setting 10.5 million people had voted as of Oct. 13.

On Oct. 14, the day of the press tour, 1.4 million ballots were expected to go out to King County voters by Oct. 16 and be in voters’ hands by the following Monday. Images of excited voters with their ballots began appearing on social media as they sat down to wade through down-ballot races and other measures, the kinds of electoral contests that don’t have as much attention as the presidential election, but will hugely impact life in the state.

It’s unlikely that voters will know who their next president is on Nov. 3; media groups that traditionally call races on election night have never seen an election quite like this one. Washingtonians know what that’s like, waiting for the evening drop to see if the balance of an election has shifted overnight.

Casting a ballot is the first step. Watching the results come in is the next. What happens after that, in this unprecedented year, no one knows.

Ashley Archibald is a staff reporter covering local government, policy, and equity. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.

Featured image: Electronic voting machine by Ashley Archibald.

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