Washingtonâ€™s sturdy, tanklike ballot drop boxes are a source of pride for state and local election officials. So when President Donald Trump suggested in August that ballot boxes are less than secure, the response here was sharp.
â€œSome states use â€˜drop boxesâ€™ for the collection of Universal Mail-In Ballots,â€ Trump tweeted. â€œSo who is going to â€˜collectâ€™ the Ballots, and what might be done to them prior to tabulation? A Rigged Election? So bad for our Country. Only Absentee Ballots acceptable!â€
Washington has laws to prevent that. And the state, which has been all-vote-by-mail since 2011, has a decade of experience with ballot boxes that counters the presidentâ€™s claims.
Washingtonâ€™s top elections official, Secretary of State Kim Wyman, said she knows of no incidents where ballot drop boxes have been tampered with or the ballots inside altered.
â€œWashingtonâ€™s experience is that they are very secure,â€ Wyman said. â€œWe havenâ€™t had any issues with lost ballots or fraud â€” and our voters love them. I donâ€™t share the presidentâ€™s concerns about ballot drop box fraud.â€
Nationwide, the focus on ballot drop boxes has increased amid fears that cost-cutting measures at the U.S. Postal Service could hamper mail-in voting. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced a lawsuit challenging recentÂ postal serviceÂ operationalÂ changesÂ that he saidÂ could undermine the November election. U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoyÂ saidÂ he would pauseÂ some mail-system changesÂ until after the election.
The issue has taken on greater importance this year, as moreÂ states shiftÂ to votingÂ by mail duringÂ the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Washington, more than half ofÂ votersÂ in the Aug. 4 primary election used drop boxesÂ toÂ return theirÂ ballots,Â according to Wyman. There are about 450 boxes statewide.
State law requires two people to be present any time ballot boxes are emptied, to ensure there are witnesses to the process. They must log the date and time they remove ballots, along with their names, so there is a record of who handled the ballots should anything be amiss.
Five county election officials said they use only trained county election employees to transport ballots. Those people have to sign an oath that they will uphold the integrity of the election process.
â€œThe people who are doing this are sworn election workersÂ â€” they take an oath before every election to perform their duties and comply with the law,â€ said Mason County Auditor Paddy McGuire. â€œThese arenâ€™t just people we pick up off the street. Most Â have been doing this for years and years in our office. They are people we trust.â€
Multiple levels of security
Every time a ballot drop box is unlocked and emptied, a tamper-evident seal is placed on the access door. That means that when election workers return to the ballot box, they will be able to see if someone opened it and accessed the ballots without permission.Â All seals are numbered and the sealsâ€™Â serial numbers are logged by election workers.
Ballots are then moved from the drop box to the counting facility in another secure container, which also is closed using a numeric seal.
Once the secure container of ballots reaches the tabulation center, the number on the seal is checked against the paperwork that was filled out when the box was emptied. State law requires that a second copy of the paperwork be kept inside the container, for added verification.
Some counties have gone to additional lengths to ensure they can track the process of emptying ballot boxes. Pierce County, the stateâ€™s second-most populous, issues county-owned phones to election workers and tracks them via a GPS system as they travel between ballot boxes.Â That way, the county knows if an election worker takes a detour or goes anywhere else with the ballots.
â€œThey are given very clear driving directions, and they canâ€™t deviateâ€ from that route, saidÂ Julie Anderson, Pierce County auditor since 2009. She said that means even if someone made an unauthorized stop to use a restroom, county officials would know.
The same electronic system in Pierce County lets election workers upload information about dropoffs and pickups in real time, so that the auditorâ€™s office can monitor the status of drop boxes remotely, Anderson said.
During ballot pickups, Pierce County election workers take photos of the empty ballot boxes and upload them as proof that all ballots were removed and none were left behind. King County election workers follow a similar procedure.
Julie Wise, King Countyâ€™s elections director, said the stateâ€™s systems for tracking ballots also ensure that fraudulent ballots canâ€™t be fabricated and stuffed in drop boxes to sway an election.
Each ballot envelope has a unique identifier associated with each voter, which ensures that elections officials only count one ballot per person â€” even if someone were to put multiple ballots in a drop box, or try to flood a drop box with fake ballots, Wise said. Thatâ€™s even the case with the online ballots that King County voters can fill out and print at home, she added.
â€œYou canâ€™t have foreign interference,Â people printing off envelopes and sending them in,â€ Wise said. â€œThatâ€™s not how it works.â€
Meddling with ballots to achieve a political end would also be difficult, since itâ€™s impossible to tell how a person voted from the outside of a ballot envelope, said Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall.
Yakima County Auditor Charles Ross said citizens can learn election procedures and observe the process of opening ballot boxes to ensure everything is done properly.
â€œAny person can witness, go with us, meet us at a location,â€ Ross said. â€œWe crave observation, we love when people come observe.â€
Anderson said trained observers from the political parties are often present when drop boxes are emptied in Pierce County, â€œto make sure nothing is happening.â€
Ballot boxes vary in size and weight, but many are several hundred pounds, even 1,000 pounds. Theyâ€™re also typically bolted into the ground, so they canâ€™t just be hauled away.
Even things that seem like they would compromise a ballot box often donâ€™t. A Thurston County ballot box wasnâ€™t significantly damaged last year when it was hit by an SUV. And in King County, a school bus failed to destroy a ballot box in a collision a few years back, Wise said.
â€œThe box was fine,â€ Wise said. â€œThe school bus, not so much.â€
Source: Crosscut.com, a non-profit news site based in Seattle. Melissa Santos wrote this article.
ABOUT VOTING AND BALLOT BOXES
- County election departments will mail ballots to voters on Oct. 16.
- Ballots must be placed in a drop box no later than 8 p.m. on election night (Nov. 3). Mailed ballots must be postmarked no later than Nov. 3.
- Locations of ballot drop boxes In Pierce County and King County are listed on the countiesâ€™ respective websites and in county-issued votersâ€™ guides. The same is true of other counties.
- State law requires county election officials to make sure ballot boxes arenâ€™t overflowing. Most counties do regular pickups throughout the 18-day voting period leading up to the end of the election (Nov. 3 for this yearâ€™s general election). In King County, ballots a
re retrieved from drop boxes daily, with additional pickups on Election Day and the day before. In Pierce County, pickups generally occur every 48 hours, then more often in the final two days of voting.