SPOKANE — Ten days after Election Day, Spokane County elections staff are still painstakingly counting and re-creating by hand the thousands of ballots that had stray pen marks, changes of mind, and other irregularities and damage.
Ballots with mistakes and changes cannot be counted electronically, and elections staff spend weeks poring over marks voters made and re-creating their ballots.
But this is the last year they’ll have to go through this slow, laborious process.
The county has purchased new technology that will allow staff to review ballots digitally, meaning far fewer ballots will have to go through the process that exists now, Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said.
With the existing procedures, irregular ballots can’t go through a machine and election staff have to copy every single race onto a new ballot so it will be counted.
With the new digital procedure, staff will be able to fix whatever race couldn’t be counted, instead of duplicating a voter’s entire ballot.
In this year’s election, voters changed their mind, left stray pen marks or damaged about 8 percent of their ballots. Those ballots take far longer to count, but can make the difference in a close race, Dalton said.
Elections manager Mike McLaughlin said the number of ballots that staff has to re-create can vary election to election. This year, about 12,000 ballots had to be re-created. That’s 8 percent of all ballots. Some years, the percentage of ballots re-created is as low as 1 percent, and other years it’s as high as 16 percent.
There are still a few thousand ballots left to count.
Dalton said the normal pattern is Democratic voters turn in their ballots early, and Republican voters wait until Election Day. But he said significant issues on the ballot can disrupt that pattern.
The final Spokane County ballots left to count this year were cast by voters who struggled to make a decision on an advisory vote or made a mistake on their ballots.
“People delayed getting their ballots back to us because they were researching all those advisory votes,” she said. “That was the hold up for a lot of voters in this election. And you can see how many changed their minds on these ballots.”
This election, there were a dozen advisory votes on the ballot.
Dalton has teams of two reviewing ballots and trying to interpret voter intent, which they do with a guide booklet from the Secretary of State’s office. Once the ballots have been examined, they go to a second team of two, which goes through the slow process of creating a new ballot. When a team of elections workers re-create a ballot, one reads what a voter marked to the other, and then they check each others’ work. The ballot can then be tabulated.
“That takes time, but the expectation is that we are perfect and we make absolutely, positively, no mistakes,” Dalton said.
She said only ballots that are ripped or damaged will have to be recreated by hand with the new technology.
“We still ask people, don’t eat and drink around your ballot,” she said.
Elections staff also keep the area where they count ballots secure. Only green and red pens are allowed where the ballots are, because those colors can’t be read by the tabulators.
Observers from the political parties sent to watch the process must be trained and stay an arm’s length from any ballots. They also aren’t allowed to tally votes while they watch staff process them.
Dalton said there is nothing wrong with a voter changing their mind, however, because it will still be counted.
“It’s absolutely their right to change their mind, and we’ll make sure their vote is counted the way they intended,” she said.
Next year, though, they’ll have an easier time doing so.