How safe are elections in Thurston County?

We asked how ballots are counted, processed and even rejected


CORRECTION:  November 10, 2020 --  The previous edition of this story misidentified Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall. 

The ballots from yesterday’s general election are being tallied, and the Thurston County Auditor’s office is posting unofficial results. 

The Thurston County Ballot Processing Center processes the ballots and ensures accuracy and voter educational outreach with the help of audits and observers. The tabulation equipment and trained staff work to count and ensure the accuracy of every ballot.

Random audit

A random audit of the November 8 General Election will take place tomorrow at 9 a.m., November 10, Auditor’s Office stated in a news release. “This test demonstrates the accuracy of the tabulation equipment.”

They have observers on hand that are appointed by the Democratic and Republican parties through the audit who can ask questions about the election process and system during the processing of the ballots. For those interested in being an observer call 360-786-5408 or email elections@co.thurston.wa.us.

Click here to watch the livestream of the Ballot Processing Center. This service will be in operation through November 29. 

Ballot checking

“In a perfect world, it takes about four hours from the time the ballot comes into the facility to the time it's ready for scanning. So because there are a lot of checks and balances, it has to get checked in, and goes through a signature [verification process],” said Mary Hall, Thurston County Auditor in an interview earlier this year.

A ballot may be rejected for many reasons, according to Hall. “It's not rejected until it has been looked at about four or five times,” Hall said, adding that a ballot will not be accepted if it is a duplicate.

“We run by precinct. Some [voting facilities] run in mixed-mode we run in precinct mode,” Hall detailed. “When we have recounts, they're already sorted down by precinct and we only have to find the precincts. In mixed mode. You have to open every single box to find the ballots.”

“It's easier to do it on the front end than the back end. Because in the back end, you've got people pulling out and looking at the numbers and some people miss ballots. So you're forever looking through finding that one ballot that somebody just missed,” Hall shared.

Checking signatures

Checking to ensure the signatures match what is on file is part of the process. A signature that is not a match will not be counted. “We have to be confident that the person who signed the ballot is the person who received the ballot,” Hall said.

“Once [a signature] really is different, you will get a letter from us. Let's say you got a new driver's license. When you sign, we get the signatures from the Department of Licensing. So as signatures evolve, [our database] updates,” Hall said. “We can keep multiple signatures in our database. We can go back and look. Then in the case of name changes and things like that, it updates with the state registration.”

The staff who do the signature verification are trained by the Washington State Patrol Fraud Division and receive training every year.

Working longer hours

During elections, the staff works longer than normal hours, Hall said.

“We may not get through everything on election night,” added Hall. “Typically, we push really hard. My staff will say, hey, ‘let's work overtime this weekend. So we can push through this.’ They're pretty amazing.”

House calls for voters with disabilities

Most voters with disabilities choose to vote like everyone else. “They want to vote unassisted,” related Hall. She went on to say that when a person asks for assistance, “we will do house calls. [It] takes two people.”

The envelope for the ballots was changed to put a hole in the envelope, Hall shared, “We moved that hole so it'd be right next to the signature line. so blind voters can feel where that signature line is. It's a simple fix, but hopefully, it was [also] helpful for people who just have issues holding something still.”

Observers and watching the process

Observers are people from the community who come to observe the election. Hall shared that “it's a very complex process, and there are a lot of checks and balances. And I think once people come down and do the process, they trust the process and they become our best ambassadors in the community. We also stream this on the internet.”

Power and barricades: the vote-counting facility

The county purchased generators to ensure the power runs consistently, and also purchased a van that was long enough to have two people in it for picking up ballots in the required teams of two. Also purchased: and barricades with grant money from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, and The Center for Tech and Civic Life.


2 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • JulesJames

    Polling station temp worker once was neighborly employment for retired folk and a small draw of young folk between careers. Now that ballot counting process has been centralized, those same folk are still focused on protecting the integrity of the election and accurately recording each vote of every qualified voter. I was one this year. Thurston County ballots are counted accurately.

    Thursday, November 10, 2022 Report this

  • lookoutmtn

    How do you verify that ballots from residents in long term care facilities: nursing homes. Adult Family homes, assisted living facilities, are completed by the residents; especially that people with developmental disabilities, mental health issues etc are the ones who completed or were completed by staff based on the residents' decisions and not the choices of staff?

    I ask because I have witnesssed ballots in ltc facilities being completed by staff based on their political persuasions. Does the state elections supervisor address and verify? If so - how?

    Thursday, November 10, 2022 Report this