The life of a ballot: How it’s processed at the Spokane County Elections Office

SPOKANE, Wash. — Democracy starts with you and a ballot. More than 350,000 ballots have been sent out in Spokane County. As of Thursday evening, 156,561 ballots have gone back to the Elections Office. That’s about 43% of registered voters.

This is when your ballot’s journey begins. 4 News Now got a behind-the-scenes look at how your ballot is processed.

The county has more than 20 drop box locations. Vicky Dalton, the county’s auditor, said two teams of two people empty them once a day, sometimes more depending on the location. They’re taken to the Elections Office and met by ballots mailed in.

“This is the heart of the operation,” Dalton said.

Your ballot will first head through the sorter.

“It captures the image on the outside of the envelope of the voter’s barcode and the voter’s signature,” Dalton explained.

Your envelope is marked with a date and sequence number. It’s divided by districts. If your ballot doesn’t have a signature, the machine puts it in another pile. Dalton said you’ll be sent a letter to fix this.

When the ballots are separated in the trays, they go through a signature verification. A worker will compare your signature to what they have on file. Dalton said if you want your vote to count, you have to sign your envelope.

If your signature doesn’t match, Dalton said the worker will challenge the signature. Another employee will look at it. If it’s still not accepted, a letter is sent to the voter.

Once your signature is verified, it’ll go back in a tray.

“Those trays are going to go back through and it’s going to sort it out by precinct code and if a signature matches or not,” Dalton said.

During this process, each tray has up to 200 ballots. A control sheet is also created for each other. As the ballot makes its way through, the sheet will say how many ballots are in the tray. It’ll keep track throughout the process.

Once the ballots get sorted, they’re taken to another area. Workers will take out the ballot from the outer envelope.

“The machine counted it,” Dalton said. “Now a human is counting it because we want to make sure that we’re only processing ballots that have been cleared.”

A machine slices the bottom of the envelope before it’s handed off to a worker. Then, the security envelope is taken out and set to the side.

“That ballot’s completely anonymous now,” Dalton said. “So when we open that security envelope, there’s no name anywhere close.”

The envelope with your signature is put in a separate area. Dalton said they’re destroyed after the election is certified and it’s past the retention period. For this election, that’s 22 months.

Now, the ballot is put onto another rack and moves on to the next stage, which is tabulation.

“It’s scanning both sides of the ballot,” Dalton said. “It’s just making an image. That’s all it’s doing.”

One person from both political parties observe the process. Off to the side, two teams of two workers go through the ballots flagged.

If it can’t be read, say because you made a change, then these workers check it before it’s counted. Dalton said both workers have to agree. To be clear, your choices aren’t counted just yet.

“We can’t count those votes until 8 p.m. on election night,” Dalton said.

There you have it. That’s the journey of your ballot.

“And when it gets to us, you’ve seen the process. It’s safe. It’s secure,” Dalton said. “Your vote will be counted.”

Your ballot has to be in a drop box by 8 p.m. on Election Day or postmarked by then.

#4ThePeople: Do I have to fill in every spot on my ballot? Is my ballot valid if I leave some questions blank?

Do you have a question about your ballot or the vote-by-mail process? Submit it here