Step One: Ballot assembly
Ballot packets are assembled by King County Elections staff about four weeks prior to Election Day at the printing vendor. Ballot packets are assembled to include: a precinct-specific ballot, security and return envelope, and any election-specific inserts.
Step Two: Ballots are mailed
Ballots are mailed to voters about three weeks prior to Election Day.
Ballot packets sent to overseas and service voters are sent about 45 days prior to a primary or
general election and 30 days prior to special elections to allow a longer transit time
for the ballot to reach the voter.
Step Three: It’s up to the voter
Once the ballot packet is in the voter’s hands, they have until Election Day to vote their ballot, seal it in the security and return envelopes, read and sign the declaration on the return envelope and return it to King County Elections. Voted ballots must be received at a designated drop box
by 8 p.m. on election night, or be postmarked by the U.S. Postal Service by the date of the election.
Step Four: Sorting
Returned ballot envelopes are delivered to King County Elections where Pitney Bowes equipment sorts them in batches of 200 to 400 ballot packets. At this stage, the sorters scan the voter data and signature on the envelope. Then the signature verification process can begin and we report that we have received a voter’s ballot. This is the first stage of ballot accountability.
Step Five: Signature Verification and Envelope Review
Before any ballot is counted, the law requires that we visually compare the signature on every returned ballot envelope with the voter’s signature on file. Trained specialists look for general similarities like height and spacing of letters or slants. If the signatures match, the ballot packet is approved to move forward to opening. If the signatures do not match or a signature is missing, the ballot packet is flagged and sent for further review.
About two percent of ballots returned in each election have a problem with the signature, called a “challenge.” This requires the voter to resolve the issue before their ballot may be processed. The majority of challenges are simply because the voter did not sign the envelope. Many signatures on the envelope do not match what is on file. While there are many reasons this could happen, common reasons include the length of time since the voter first registered to vote or a voter initialing instead of signing. We contact voters by letter and phone with instructions on how to resolve the issue and they have until the day before certification to respond.
Alternate format ballots are those returned by email or fax, or non-standard ballots returned by U.S. mail. These ballots require special handling and then must go through the same verification process as standard ballots.
Step Six: Opening is a three-step process
- The security envelope, containing the voted ballot, is removed from the return envelope and separated.
- Once all return envelopes have been emptied and set aside, workers open the security envelopes and remove the ballots.
- We visually inspect the ballot to determine if the votes as marked by the voter can be properly read by our scanning equipment. Ballots that are physically ready for scanning and tabulation proceed straight there. Ballots with physical damage or unclear voter marks are sent to Ballot Review.
Step Seven: Ballot Review
If there is damage to a ballot or if the voter makes stray marks or corrections, or uses the wrong type of pen, the scanners will not be able to read the ballot. Always working in teams of two, each ballot is carefully reviewed to determine if it can be electronically duplicated through our adjudication system or if the ballot needs to be physically duplicated. These teams also use the Voter Intent manual produced by the Office of the Secretary of State to provide for consistent determination of voter intent.
If voter intent cannot be determined by use of the manual or other established direction from the Canvassing Board, ballots are forwarded to the Canvassing Board for determination.
Step Eight: Scanning, Tabulation and Adjudication
Once a ballot is ready for tabulation, a machine scans the ballot and stores the images on a secure and closed system. Tabulation occurs after 8 p.m. on election night and results are produced and made public. Scanning and tabulation continue until all eligible votes are counted and the election is certified. The tabulation server is secured in a room that is monitored by security cameras, biometric controlled access, and tamper evident seals.