Clark County Elections staff working overtime to ensure accurate ballot count

Clark County primary election night coverage

Clark County has 297,841 registered voters. As of this morning’s delivery of ballots, the county elections staff has 54,404 ballots to handle and count for Tuesday’s primary election results announcement. That represents just over 18 percent of registered voters turning in ballots so far.

The Clark County elections staff have been working to properly handle and then count ballots in the 2021 primary election. There are two ballot measures in two communities, plus a variety of local positions of interest. Generally speaking, the primary ballot contains races where three or more candidates are competing for a single elected position. The top two will advance to the November general election.

Cathie Garber is a supervisor in the elections department and explained the process she and her staff undergo, ensuring there is a “chain of custody” at every step of the process.  

As ballots are returned to the elections department, they go through an envelope sorter. Signatures are captured along with a barcode, matched to the individual voter identification. That then begins a signature verification process to unfold. Election observers are allowed to view each step of the process.

Clark County election workers begin the counting process by placing the ballot envelopes in this machine. It scans the signature on the envelope and captures the unique barcode data tied to each voter. Photo by John Ley
Clark County election workers begin the counting process by placing the ballot envelopes in this machine. It scans the signature on the envelope and captures the unique barcode data tied to each voter. Photo by John Ley

Each voter’s signature is verified by a team of employees trained by the Washington State Police fraud unit . They match the signature on file, when a voter registered to vote, with the signature on the ballot envelope.

“They want to be able to count this ballot for the voter, but we want to make sure that only eligible registered voters sign these ballots because whoever signed this envelope is the one who voted this,” said Garber.

Greg Kimsey is the Clark County auditor, and has been overseeing elections for 23 years. At least half his time is spent in the election process. He has seven permanent employees, down from 10 when he first began, due to technology improvements, mainly in the voter registration area.

For this election, they have hired 80 temporary employees, all trained by the state, as Garber mentioned.

“We want to be able to report on Election Day, preliminary election results of all the ballots in our hands as of this morning,” Kimsey said. Results are announced at 8:15 on election night.

He shared that they have pretty good data on past elections, and therefore the “ballots to be counted” are an estimate of the number of ballots remaining in the postal system or in the process of being delivered to his office.

Garber shares that some of the rooms are “two person minimum” for security purposes. There are checks and balances along the way, including weighing ballots against the computer count of a batch. 

The ballots ultimately are scanned into a computer hard drive. There are images taken of each ballot. Those scanned ballots go into one of two computer hard drives locked up in separate lockboxes. At that point, the data is simply “ones and zeros” — computer language. 

The scanned ballots are then put into boxes that are later stored in a secure area. They can be accessed if questions arise at a later time.

Ballots have not been counted at that point. A separate machine does that at 8 p.m. on election night. 

Staff members use a state registered thumb drive that has been locked in a safe. It is verified to have no votes on it, prior to being inserted into the computer containing the ballot data. They take the thumb drive to the counting machine that has been inside a locked closet. With witnesses and observers present, the thumb drive is inserted into the counting machine.

The counting process is practically instantaneous, according to Kimsey. He shared it takes longer to print the final counts on paper than it does for the counting machine to electronically count and tabulate the data.

Beginning at 9 a.m. Wednesday (Aug. 4), elections officials will perform a hand count of approximately 600 ballots randomly selected as part of a manual comparison against machine results.

The selected ballots will be counted in the total returns on Election Day. But for this comparison, the city of Vancouver mayoral race will be counted by hand, to check the accuracy of the ballot tabulation equipment.

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