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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

'We’re ready.' WA election officials seek to reassure voters

Washington Secretary of State's Office
Washington election officials say they will work closely with the U.S. Postal Service to ensure ballots are delivered on time, but they're urging voters to use ballot drop boxes, especially closer to Election Day.

As President Donald Trump intensifies his attacks on the security of vote-by-mail, county auditors and state election officials sought Friday to reassure voters the state of Washington is well prepared to pull off the 2020 vote-by-mail election.

However, those reassurances were also tempered by ongoing concerns about the United States Postal Service’s capacity to deliver and process ballots in a timely manner.

In a wide-ranging virtual work session, the Washington Senate’s State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee took testimony from county auditors, the Secretary of State’s office and a postal worker union leader, among others.

Generally, the message was that Washington’s county election offices have long experience with vote-by-mail and a strong relationship with the Postal Service -- and that voters will have ample opportunity to cast their ballots and have their votes count.

“I have confidence that we’re ready and the post office is ready to handle the capacity for this upcoming general election,” said Garth Fell, the auditor in Snohomish County.

Fell and other auditors noted they have daily meetings with local post office officials during the state’s 18-day voting period.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time, we have a longstanding partnership with the U.S. Postal Service,” said Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton. She added that she has her local postmaster “on speed dial.”

The vice president of the American Postal Workers Union Seattle office also praised Washington’s vote-by-mail system as the “best … in the country.” Specifically, David Yao noted that Washington ballots come with prepaid postage and that Washington counts late-arriving ballots so long as they’re postmarked by Election Day.

But Yao cautioned recent changes at the post office, including processing machines taken offline and a requirement that mail trucks leave on time, even if the outgoing mail isn’t ready, have the potential to delay the delivery of ballots.

“I think overall we have the capacity and experience to handle voting by mail,” Yao said. “There may be a one-day delay in [a very tiny fraction] of mail.”

But Yao indicated he wasn’t concerned that such a delay would ultimately disenfranchise voters because Washington has a long voting window.

“There is still ample time for people to send their ballots in,” Yao said.

The Postal Service did not respond to an invitation to participate in the work session, according to Democratic state Sen. Sam Hunt, the chair of the State Government committee.

On Thursday, a federal judge in Yakima granted a nationwide emergency injunction ordering the Postal Service to halt changes to its operations. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a press release that the order specifically requires the Postal Service to reassemble mail processing machines and end practices like the “leave mail behind” policy.

Yao said that if the Postal Service quickly complies with the order, that would address some of his union’s remaining concerns.

“We will be monitoring that and hopefully they’ll comply and we can make sure that there’s no possibility that mail is even delayed by one day,” Yao said.

In response to Thursday’s court ruling, the Postal Service said in a statement: “We will review the written order once it is published and respond at that time.”

Previously, U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy had said that he was suspending operational changes until after the election.

Regarding the return of ballots back to the post office, Yao said he was concerned that if mail carriers were out late delivering and picking up mail on Election Day – especially in rural parts of the state – ballots might not get a postmark by midnight. In order to receive a postmark, a ballot would have to reach one of just a handful of regional processing facilities.

A Postal Service spokesperson said the key is for voters to drop their ballots before the final mail pick-up of the day.

“If you get it into the mailbox before the last pick up, whether it’s Chelan, Wapato or Walla Walla, it should get that day’s postmark,” said Ernie Swanson. However, he added, there’s no absolute guarantee.

Ballot drop boxes

Election officials are urging voters to instead use approved ballot drop boxes, especially if they wait until Election Day to cast their ballots.

“We’re going to be doing a lot of messaging around: ‘Hey, if it’s the last day, please use a drop box if you can because we want to get those ballots counted,’” said David Elliott with the Secretary of State’s office.

Since 2017, Washington has added at least 150 ballot drop boxes for a total today of 523 statewide, according to Julie Wise, the director of King County Elections. In a presentation to the committee, she said that 85 percent of Washington voters now live within a three mile radius of a drop box.

Wise testified that in some places, 20 percent of voters use a drop box, while in other parts of the state 70 percent do. It’s not clear why there’s such a difference.

In 2019, the Washington Legislature passed the Native American Voting Rights Act. That legislation allows Washington tribes to request from local county auditors the placement of a ballot box at a location of their choosing and at no cost. Currently, at least 10 tribes have a drop box on reservation land, 11 have a box with five miles of their tribal boundary and eight have no box within five miles of their borders, according to Leonard Forsman, chair of the Suquamish Tribal Council.

“So we do have some needs out there and it would be great if the counties would reach out to the tribes,” Forsman told the committee.

The Secretary of State’s office said more boxes are being installed on tribal lands, including on the Quinault and Skokomish Indian reservations. Hunt, the committee chair, said the state is exploring whether federal CARES Act dollars could be spent to install more boxes.

As for the security of ballot boxes, which President Trump has called a “voter security disaster,” Wise noted that King County’s boxes weigh more than 1000 pounds and are secured into concrete with four inch bolts.

“We had a school bus accidentally hit one of our drop boxes and I can attest that the contents in the box were just fine, the bus not so much,” Wise said.

Wise also said boxes are emptied daily – if not multiple times a day -- with trained teams of two. She is anticipating nearly 500,000 ballots will be dropped in ballot boxes on Election Day.

Voter registration

As Washington grows in population, voter registrations have increased by more than 350,000 people since 2016. But there are still hundreds of thousands of potentially eligible voters in the state who are not registered.

Over the next several weeks, Washington plans to launch efforts to reach those individuals. Next week, on National Voter Registration Day, the Secretary of State’s office will send more than 380,000 postcards to driver’s license holders who are not registered. In addition, robust TV, radio and social media campaigns, along with partnerships with the Seahawks and Sounders are getting underway. King County will even use a plane pulling a banner to remind people to vote.

For voters who are already registered, county auditors and the Secretary of State’s office say this is a good time to ensure their voter registration is up to date using the website.

The deadline for ballots to be mailed to voters is October 16. But some counties are likely to get a head start. 

Generally, the Post Office treats ballots as first-class mail. But last month, because of concerns about delayed mail, the Secretary of State ordered county auditors to place first-class postage on outgoing ballots sent within 15 days of the election.

Voter security

The FBI recently confirmed efforts by Russia to influence the 2020 election. In 2016, Russian hackers targeted Washington and Oregon’s voter registration systems. To combat attacks, the Secretary of State’s office said it has developed an election security operations center, installed cybersecurity alert censors across the state and conducted security audits of all of the counties.

In addition, since 2018, cybersecurity experts with Washington’s military department have been working with the Secretary of State’s office to secure the election system.

Col. Kenneth Borchers with the Washington Air National Guard noted that Washington’s use of paper ballots makes tampering difficult. He also highlighted efforts to protect election data transmitted from each of the state's 39 counties to the Secretary of State, as well as to prevent cyberattacks on the website that provides election results.

“Our state elections system is inherently resilient and well-postured from a cybersecurity perspective,” Borchers said.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."