Election integrity continued goal for Columbia County
October 20, 2022
DAYTON—Columbia County’s Election Supervisor, Cathy Abel, said there are many checks and balances to ensure election integrity in the county, from the time an election ballot leaves the voter to when it is certified by the state.
Ballots have prepaid postage and are returned through the mail or at ballot drop boxes. Abel hopes that if people vote by mail, it will be sooner, rather than later. Votes will be tabulated and counted if postmarked by election day or dropped off by 8 p.m. on the day of the election at the latest.
“The postmark date is important. If you vote on Election Day, go to the Post Office and get the date hand-stamped, so it counts.”
There are three tamper-proof drop boxes in the county, one at the County Auditor’s Office inside the county courthouse at 341 East Main Street and one in the northwest corner of the alley adjacent to the courthouse. There is another box located at city hall in the Town of Starbuck, at 200 Main Street.
Abel said the drop boxes would be checked and ballots retrieved by staff in the Auditor’s Office daily and tracked from the time they are collected.
Abel is required to keep a daily record of each ballot received, showing the total number of ballots for each day, along with information about signatures; whether they can, or can’t, be verified against a voter’s registration record.
She said part of her training has been in how to read signatures.
“It’s not necessarily what you write, but how you write it,” she said.
She looks for such things as whether middle names have been added or excluded, whether t’s are crossed or not, or if the slant of the writing has changed. Scribbled signatures are particularly troublesome.
If there is a problem with a signature, she will reach out to the voter, who will be asked to fill out a form, and redo it.
Abel doesn’t work in a vacuum. The election canvassing board will step in and adjudicate any problem when necessary.
This year, Columbia County Commission Chair Marty Hall is serving with Abel on the canvassing board, along with County Prosecuting Attorney Dale Slack. But because Slack is on the ballot for re-election in November, it is likely that Garfield County’s Prosecuting Attorney Matt Newberg will serve.
Abel said she verifies every ballot, from two to three each day, up to 400 each day, as Election Day approaches.
Once a signature is verified, the ballot is marked as “Accepted” in the VoteWA system, and the voter is credited for participating. This ensures that if more than one ballot is returned, only one is counted.
An additional security measure is in the way ballots are processed. The outer envelope will be separated from the inner security envelope containing the ballot, thus separating the voter’s identification information from the ballot.
Abel said the ballots are placed in a secured location until they are scanned and tabulated.
Scanning and tabulating are done in batches of 25 bundles, using an election machine provided by the state of Washington for that purpose. This scanner is not connected to any electronic network or internet and is inspected before every election to make sure it is working properly. It is kept locked and secure, when not in use, she said.
Ballots with write-in candidates, or those marked with pencil, instead of pen, or having other irregularities are bundled together for adjudication, scanning and tabulation.
Abel said ballots will continue to be scanned and tabulated until 2 p.m. on Election Day. At 8 p.m. that day, two people from the Auditor’s Office will close the ballot boxes at the Auditor’s Office and at the courthouse alley. Two other employees will close the drop box in Starbuck.
A preliminary tally of the votes will take place and the results shared on the Auditor’s website. Any remaining ballots will continue to be counted until the election is certified.
The process doesn’t end there.
For this election, the canvassing board will certify and transmit the results to the state on Nov. 29. The Washington Secretary of State has until Dec. 8 to certify the election.
After the election, the ballots will be kept in a secure location at the courthouse for 18 months for state elections, and for 22 months for federal elections, in case there is a challenge to the election.
“They can’t be destroyed until then,” Abel said.
Information about elections is online at https://www.columbiaco.com/554/2022-Election. Contact the Auditor’s Office at (509) 382-4541 if you do not receive a ballot by Oct. 22 or want to watch the ballot process in action. If you are unsure if you are registered or need to verify your address, go to https://voter.votewa.gov/WhereToVote.aspx.