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A sneak peek at the secret life of your ballot

Coffee stains, indecisive voters, workers in shorts and sleep deprivation are all part of the fun

NEWS-TIMES FILE PHOTO - With less than a week until Election Day, voters are busy turning their ballots in -- and Washington County Elections officials are busy counting them. With Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump claiming the Nov. 8 election is rigged, it’s worth looking at what exactly happens to your ballot once you drop it in a ballot box or mail it off.

Mickie Kawai, director of the Washington County Elections department, anticipates 338,000 county voters will be doing that this year, compared to 292,000 four years ago. That reflects both population growth and Oregon’s new automatic motor-voter registration system.

Kawai has counted ballots for more than 30 years and is used to seeing her staff of nine permanent, full-time employees add about 300 temporary employees during election season. Except for 30-some who monitor dropoff boxes around the county, all the rest will squeeze into the department’s headquarters at 3700 S.W. Murray Blvd. in Beaverton.

Here’s the lifecycle of your submitted ballot, as described by Kawai:

¦ It begins with uniformed staff members — two per vehicle — traveling daily to local U.S. Post Offices and the county’s 16 drop boxes to pick up ballots and return them to election headquarters. Traditionally, about 10 percent of the total ballots come in the Monday before Election Day — and 30 percent on Election


n Once inside the elections office, the ballots are run through a federally funded “Criterion Apex” machine roughly the size of a standard limousine. At one end, a staff member feeds them into a slot while another employee hovers nearby, helping guide and straighten the ballots so they move quickly.

“The machine runs very fast, like a machine gun,” Kawai said. It photographs the envelopes’ bar codes and voter signatures, then shoots the ballots out at the other end into slots categorized by precinct groups. Two other employees keep these slots clean as they quickly fill up. With the Criterion Apex processing 10,000 ballots per hour (nearly three per second), it generates so much heat that the employees usually wear shorts to keep cool.

n The Criterion also identifies ballots from residents who live in other counties but mistakenly drop them off in Washington County. There are about 10,000 such ballots every general election, mostly from Multnomah County, which gets its own share of mistaken Washington County ballots. The two counties exchange errant ballots.

n The sorted ballots are then individually reviewed by a team of six signature checkers, who match each ballot envelope signature against a computer record of the signature on the individual voter’s registration record. “More than 99.5 percent of the signatures pass this test and the tiny fraction that don’t are almost always people who fill out their ballots at the very last minute and scribbled their signature so fast, it’s illegible,” Kawai said. In those cases, the county contacts the individual voter and requests them to complete a new registration card for verification.

n Once a ballot’s signature is validated, it’s ready for the processing tables, which will swing into action this Thursday, Nov. 3. Three staff per table monitor each other while opening envelopes and removing ballots, which are placed face down on the table. At this step, Kawai said, the Democratic and Republican parties typically send volunteers to observe the process.

n The ballots are then put into boxes called “batches” — about 400 to 500 ballots per box — and are processed by scanning the voters’ marked choices through a Fujitsu 6800 computer the size of a large copy machine.

n As the results come in, they’re stored in a server

that has no outside internet connection, so it cannot be hacked.

n About .5 percent of all ballots cannot be electronically read because the ballot has been torn, disfigured with dirt or coffee stains, or the voter appeared to change their mind, crossing out the first box

they marked and then marking another box. In those instances, a bi-partisan team manually reviews the ballot, with

possible observers from each political party present, to try

to determine the voter’s intent. It is usually pretty straight-forward and simple, Kawai said.

n Elections workers can legally begin tallying ballots anytime after 12:01 a.m. on election day but in Washington County, they wait until 7 p.m. — office tradition, Kawai says — when they start combining most of the scanned data for the different candidates and measures (imagine pressing the “equal” sign on a calculator for different equations). In that one hour they are able to tally data from roughly all the ballots received by the previous Friday — Nov. 4 this year.

By the end of last Friday, Oct. 28, about 61,000 ballots had been returned — 18.08 percent of registered voters, Kawai said. It’s not unreasonable to expect that number to at least double by Nov. 4.

n At 8 p.m., Kawai posts the first results at washingtoncountyelectionresults.com. Don’t be confused by that “100 percent of precincts reporting” column heading at the far right of that page. Many people mistakenly think that means 100 percent of the votes have been counted. In fact, it’s only relevant in states that still use polling places, where the people running them might not all have reported in yet. Be-

cause that online results page is part of a product that is used elsewhere in the U.S. where polling places are still relevant, county elections officials

can’t simply remove it. Just ignore it.

n More results are posted at 9 p.m., 10 p.m., 11 p.m., midnight and then at two- to three-hour intervals until the count is completed. Even when Kawai offers them the chance to go home and sleep, many staff stick around until 6 a.m. when the process is mostly completed.

“They want to see it through to the end,” she said.

Jill Rehkopf Smith contributed to this story.