by Phil Manzano
For the most part, the detailed inner workings of the King County Elections facility aren’t big news. But continuing challenges to the outcome of the Nov. 2020 presidential election begs the question: Is King County’s election ballot counting process accurate and secure?
I headed to King County Elections, a nondescript building off Southwest Grady Way near the I-405 and SR67 interchange to get a close look. I met with Jerelyn Hampton, ballot processing manager, essentially the point person for King County’s ballot integrity, and Halei Watkins, communications officer for King County elections.
“Interest in the security of our elections has definitely grown over the last year and a half,” Watkins said. “It has sustained itself well since the 2020 presidential election, and we continue to hear from folks who have questions about how our system works. But that also feels natural, it’s not a bad thing for people to ask questions about how it all works.”
The elections center is both an open and “hardened” facility, as Hampton puts it on the tour.
An observation loop circles the ballot processing center with large picture windows that allow the public to walk the loop and view every work area in the center. A couple of times, particularly interested observers showed up with binoculars to get an up-close view of the work. In case you don’t want to make the trip, you can watch live webcam streams of the election center, which were activated on Oct. 18.
That’s where the open part of the facility ends and the hardened security aspect begins. Key cards activate a steel double-door entry into the elections center; all doors are alarmed and critical security areas require fingerprint confirmation to enter. It’s weeks before the election so there’s not much going on, but everyone in the space wears a color-coded lanyard indicating status and access. Media wear a pink lanyard (makes us easier to spot, I guess) which means that I’ll always have a supervisor or communications staff escort with me. Others, besides employees, allowed on the floor during the election include representatives of Republican and Democratic parties and County and State observers.
More than 50 cameras monitor access points and key areas of the facility. Employees are not allowed to bring in bags or backpacks. Ballots are stored in an area known as “the cage” behind floor-to-ceiling metal cyclone fencing and accessed through a tightly controlled gate. A keycard and fingerprint read is required to enter the area. Each night, the door is secured with a red tie with a unique serial number. When workers break the seal in the morning the number is logged into an entry book.
There are even more hardening measures. For instance, there are no ceiling tiles, to eliminate crawl spaces where someone may hide or stash something. There are no skylights to eliminate that entry point, (think Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible dropping into a secure vault from an overhead vent) as recommended by casino security consultants who toured and inspected the facility.
The most secure room is the server room where ballot results are stored and tabulated. Access is restricted to a handful of employees, all senior level, who are allowed into the server room to download results, for instance.
The computer system is not connected to the Internet or even the county’s computer system. It is a standalone, closed system, hardwired with bright purple cables into computers (with disabled hard drive ports) and scanners just outside the server room.
If the security protocols for the ballot are intense, so are the mechanisms for making sure the count is accurate — a daunting task especially during even-year general elections when turnout runs high. Approximately 1.2 million voters are registered in King County, the largest vote-by-mail jurisdiction in the country.
The ballot tracking system is designed to give election officials a way of knowing exactly where every ballot is and that it’s a valid vote.
When ballots arrive at the facility through a ground floor warehouse, they’re brought up to the facility and processed through “Stars” and “Stripes” — two massive sorting machines each capable of sorting 40,000 envelopes per hour. The machines take a picture of the signature outside the envelope on its first run.
Election staff review each envelope for a signature and each signature is reviewed and checked against the signature on file. Questionable ballots or ballots without signatures, usually about 1% of those returned, are sent to a smaller, more experienced team for review and follow-up. Validated envelopes are resent through the system.
The vetted envelopes are then run through the machines again, automatically slit open and then sorted for opening. At this point the ballot is separated from the return envelope and scanned, a key step to keep the vote private. As ballots come into the elections center, they’re processed, scanned and the vote is stored until 8 p.m. election night. Only after the election is closed are results tabulated.
“At the end of the day, every eligible vote is counted,” Hampton said.
“I do sleep well at night because of all of the checks and balances we have in place in Washington state,” she said. “Balancing security with accessibility is really important. “(We have) a very inclusive election system with vote-by-mail and it also allows us to be ironclad in our reconciliation and the ability to account for everything we receive.”
On my way out of the elections facility we stopped at two large maps — one of the U.S., another of the world. Numerous dots pepper the maps, marking areas from Arizona to Jakarta, each dot represents a visit from election officials or observers from around the world who have come to study King County’s vote-by-mail system.
“I think the obvious takeaway,” Watkin said, “is that our office does everything humanly possible to safeguard and secure our elections and make sure that we’re running accurate elections that folks can believe in and participate in.”
This article is funded in part by a Voter Education Fund grant from King County Elections and the Seattle Foundation.
Phil Manzano is a South Seattle writer, editor with more than 30 years of experience in daily journalism, and is the interim news editor for the Emerald.
📸 Featured Image: Jerelyn Hampton, King County Ballot Processing Manager, inside the Elections Center in preparation for the Nov. 2 election. (Photo: Phil Manzano)
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