How Are Ballots Counted? We Asked Benton County
Exactly how are ballots processed and counted? Due to the current firestorm of what's going on with the Presidential election, and questions from our listeners and followers on social media, here's how it works. We spoke with the Benton County Auditor's office, elections division. (Image courtesy of Tri Cities Are Journal of Business).
In Benton and other Washington state counties, when mail in or drop of ballots arrive, they are opened and prepared for voting. Benton County and most larger counties use what's called a digital scanner. It scans and stores the ballot (both sides if necessary) then that information is stored digitally. There are several types of state or federally approved such digital systems. Counties do NOT start counting actual votes until election day or whenever they are legally able to.
Once election day arrives, this digital process allows them to start the counter and it begins to rapidly (and we mean fast!) tally up the votes. Some smaller counties, such as Adams, are still using optical scanners, which scan the ballot like a picture. They tend to be slower and have more limitations, which is why some smaller counties seem to report their totals 'later.'
Once the data is compiled, regular updates or tallies are sent to the Secretary of State's office. All the tallying is done at the county level in Washington. The votes you see at the results website comes from the county level.
As for ballots that have a write in candidate, there is a panel of people who look and determine who the write in candidate is and for what office. These are often counted separately, which is why that process takes longer.
Benton County told us that's mainly why as of Wednesday morning, there were still just over 550,000 ballots left to be counted. These also include military and some overseas or out of state ballots--cast by people who are still legally state residents.
As for 'late' ballots, Washington is a postmark state. Ballots that are received with a legal postmark no later than election day are counted. As for drop offs, at 8PM all the county drop boxes are "sealed" meaning ballots cannot be dropped off. IF somebody shows up a few minutes late, and there are still workers there they will usually take it.
But once it is sealed, that's it. As for what is going on in Pennsylvania and some of these other states where Presidential voting issues are happening, Benton County officials say it's largely the result of these states having to hurriedly implement vote by mail systems they may not have been using--especially in vote in person areas.
That has led to states having to try to do in a few months what it took WA years to improve and refine to work properly...the mail in or pre vote systems.
Washington, say Benton County officials, has worked long and hard to get the vote by mail system 'right,' it did take some big efforts.
Especially after the infamous Gregoire-Rossi Governor's election in 2004, where a triple recount finally made her the winner. There were accusations of dead persons voting, and ballots found in trunks of cars. This led to extensive overhauls of the system.
Part of the reason tallies are tabulated so fast is because once ballots are opened and scanned, the actual counting can take only a matter of a few minutes; that's why returns began to appear so fast at the state level. It also depends upon how fast counties send in the data.
Many of these Benton County officials believe after this 2020 election, there will be significant voting-mail in ballot reform at the Federal level, for Federal elections.