Mid-Columbia elections workers already hard at it

More than 40,000 ballots already have been received by the auditor's offices in Benton and Franklin counties as Election Day nears, and the counting process has already begun.

Election workers in both counties must prepare the ballots for Tuesday's official count, a labor-intensive process designed to ensure security of the counting. The process will be closely watched, especially given the interest in this year's election.

Brenda Chilton, Benton County auditor, said she hopes to see a voter turnout of 71 percent, which would be a record for an off-year election. In the 2006 general election, 65 percent of voters participated.

Diana Killian, Franklin County election administrator, said she expects a 60 percent voter turnout.

And statewide, Secretary of State Sam Reed is predicting 66 percent of the state's 3.6 million registered voters will participate, which would be the best midterm turnout in 40 years.

As of Thursday, Benton County had received 31,102 of the 89,240 ballots issued, and Franklin County had received 8,893 of the 25,349 sent to voters.

Before Election Day

In Benton County, ballots are taken to the Prosser courthouse. They are kept in sets of 300 and divided into groups of 50, Chilton said. The set is counted at each step of the process to make sure no ballots are misplaced, and two staff members are present whenever ballots are handled.

In Franklin County, ballots are sorted into the county's 101 precincts to be verified against the number for the precinct in the system, said Killian.

In both counties, election workers scan the bar codes on the outer envelopes of the returned ballots to pull up the voter's information in the county's database. That allows them to check the ballot signature against the one on file.

When a signature doesn't match, the counties send a notice to the voter and give him or her a chance to verify their signature. If there's no response before the date the county certifies the election, the bipartisan election canvassing board decides whether to count the vote.

Once a signature is scanned and the ballot accepted, the counties' systems won't accept any more ballots from that voter. The outer envelopes, with the signatures, are securely stored.

In Benton County, the security envelopes are opened and the ballots are scanned onto a memory stick but are not counted, Chilton said. Once ballots are scanned, two people review each ballot to check for irregularities, such as races in which a voter changed his or her mind and crossed out a vote.

Sometimes staff will need to copy the votes onto a new ballot so the tabulation system can read it, Chilton said. When that happens, they save both ballots in case they are needed for later reference. Any write-in votes are typed in to prepare them for counting.

In Franklin County, Killian said Saturday, about 25 bipartisan election board workers open each ballot. In pairs of two, the workers check each ballot for discrepancies, such as corrected votes. As in Benton County, if a voter changed his or her vote or the ballot was damaged, they copy the ballot so it can be counted, Killian said.

Election night

On Tuesday, Franklin County election workers will start putting ballots received by Monday through the tabulation machine about 10 a.m., Killian said. It will take one to two hours for the machine to count those.

The machine will pull out any ballots that look like an overvote, a blank vote or a write-in vote not caught earlier, Killian said. Staff then will review those ballots and copy them onto new ballots so the machine can read them.

Results of the tabulation won't be available, even to the employees, until 8 p.m. Tuesday, Killian said. Ballots received Tuesday won't be counted until Wednesday, she said.

In Benton County at 8 p.m., staff will insert the memory card with the scanned ballot images into the tabulation system to be counted, Chilton said. Actual counting takes seconds.

Ballots received Tuesday in Benton County also won't likely be in the preliminary results available Election Day evening. Chilton said those ballots need to go through the same verification process before they can be counted.

"It's a very labor intensive process," she said.

After election night

Both counties will continue to count ballots until all those postmarked by Tuesday have been tallied.

Any ballots on which voter intent is unclear or signatures have not been confirmed will be reviewed by the county canvassing boards before the boards certify the election Nov. 22.

While Chilton ordinarily would be a member of the canvassing board, she will have another member of her office on the board for this election because she is on the ballot.

And Franklin County Auditor Zona Lenhart, who also is on the ballot, will be on the Franklin County canvassing board but will refrain from decisions when voter intent on the auditor race is in question, Killian said.

Chilton and Lenhart are abstaining from handling ballots during the counting process.

After the election, the ballots will be sealed in containers and put into secure storage for 22 months. Both counties later recycle the ballots, and anything with identifying information is shredded.