Klickitat County Auditor Brenda Sorensen spoke with the community about how elections are administered in the County during an Oct. 7 forum at the White Salmon Valley Community Library.
The meeting, sponsored by the Klickitat County Democratic Party, was held as a “non-partisan gathering to help inform voters in the county,” according to the press release.
The Klickitat County Auditor is being audited themselves by the Secretary of State’s office this year, a process that occurs every five years. Sorensen explained that the state can give suggestions on where to improve but has no mandating power over the county office, which is responsible for administering elections.
“We have a very good working relationship with the state office,” said Sorensen.
Sorensen explained the process from which ballots are assembled, then distributed and collected. She then went over how the office tallies each ballot and how they are certified.
Sorensen explained the county has outsourced the procedures for assembling ballots for the first time this election cycle.
“We’re the only county in the state that hasn’t done it, is my understanding,” said Sorensen.
Washington is a vote-by-mail state, which means voters can either bring their ballot to one of 12 dropboxes in Klickitat County or send them by mail. Either option is postage-free, as Sorensen explained.
Two people pick up the ballots from the box. There’s a log-in site, which two people must sign. The ballots go in the bag with an accountability seal both inside and out of the bag.
Sorensen explained members of the public can ask for a “match back” which are public records of who has voted. Sorenson said usually it is party officials who request these types of records
The Post Office brings the ballots to the county office. The office then scans the ballots and gives “the voter credit that they voted.”
One concern a member of the audience raised was about signature changes.
“If for some reason we can’t match the signature, we send out a letter,” said Sorensen. If the letter is returned a day before certification of the election with a matching signature, the office will count the ballot.
As for voters who move between states, the Washington Secretary of State is a partner with ERIC, which stands for Electronic Registration Information Center, which shares voter information between 28other member states, including Washington D.C., and all the counties within. The Auditor’s Office also examines local obituaries on a regular basis, so they know which accounts to close.
Sorensen said the best way for people to let the office know if someone has moved or passed away is to put the ballot back in the mail, writing “refused” on it.
Certifying the ballots requires three computer systems. One computer is in charge of scanning ballots and certifying their authenticity while another tallies the results.
The Secretary of State provides secure USB drives to transfer data from those machines to one that is connected to the internet.
The data is then uploaded to a secure server shared with the Secretary of State. The drives are used once and locked up with the ballots for an allotted period of time.
The state provides firewalls and fail-safes for the server to be secure. The Department of Homeland Security also aids the state in ensuring security in the server.
Sorensen said that elections take time to process, especially for smaller counties.
“Close to 70% of what we received came in the last four or five days before election day,” said Sorenson.
Sorensen explained ballots are counted by hand, as opposed to larger counties that have expensive processes that count ballots automatically.
When handling ballots, Sorensen described the process as treating it “like cash. Two people in, two people out.” The County uses log-in sites and accountability seals to ensure any time a ballot is handled, two people sign their names and give a reason why the ballot was handled.
“We try very hard not to skip any step with security in elections,” Sorensen said.
Sorensen said new legislation and updated software regarding voting procedures have posed a challenge to the Auditor’s Office. She said the County has integrated a new elections administration system, which combined with the new statewide same-day voter registration system, called VoteWA, has changed some the operations of the Auditor’s Office.
“We’re learning a lot,” said Sorensen. “We’re all hands on deck.”
The election tallying process the county goes through is lengthy, but Sorensen called it “very secure.”
Sorensen says she believes the vote-by-mail system is more secure than a ballot machine. She also said she wishes there were more standardized approaches across the country.
“I feel that uniformity in a process is so much better… and there’s less chance of error because you have your neighbor you could be relying on,” said Sorensen.
Electoral procedures are open to the public, according to Sorensen. She said people interested in observing the process should call ahead so they could schedule the time to perform the process for those interested.
When asked about party influence on elections, Sorensen said she hasn’t experienced parties attempting to sway the vote.
“My personal opinion, and every individual that gets elected feels differently… when I walk in the doors of that courthouse, or I’m talking elections, I’m a nonpartisan. That’s it,” Sorensen said.
She continued: “I deal with elections and that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
Voter’s pamphlets were also offered to audience members. The ballots are due to be sent to residents by Oct. 18 for the Nov. 5 election.
On the ballot this year are a plethora of issues voters will decide on, such as Referendum measure no. 88, which, if voted in favor, would allow affirmative action without the use of quotas by the state. A vote against would continue to ban the practice altogether.
Another initiative on the ballot is I-976, which would limit the cost of state-sanctioned vehicle-licensing fees to $30, except and would also limit local governments’ ability to charge extra amounts on top of the state tax, “except voter-approved charges,” according to the pamphlet. Critics of this measure argue it would hinder the state’s ability to fund transportation-related operations.
Many public offices will be filled after the Nov. 5 election, such as the seat for Mayor of White Salmon and city council seats in both Bingen and White Salmon. A vast majority of the people running for election in Klickitat County on Nov. 5 election are running unopposed.