Because of recent litigation before the Pierce County Superior Court and the State Supreme Court, the Office of the Secretary of State has received many inquiries during the past week regarding the specific rules and procedures governing recounts. Washington State statutes (RCWs), regulations (WACs), and guidelines generally provide the following:
The Initial Count. In the initial count, the county canvassing board and election workers canvass all ballots returned by both poll voters and absentee voters. For ballots cast at the polls, and which are centrally counted at the courthouse, election workers manually inspect the ballots prior to tabulation and do not count those ballots where the voter overvoted (voted for 2 or more candidates) or undervoted (did not vote for any candidate) for the Governor’s race. In addition, for absentee voters, the signature on the affidavit on the outside of the return envelope is compared to the signature in the county’s voter registration files, and if a signature is missing the voter is notified by mail or phone and has an opportunity to submit a signature up to the day prior to certification day. The postmark of each absentee ballot is inspected to verify it was mailed on or before Election Day. On certification day, the canvassing board provides a final tabulation and certifies the results to the Secretary of State. Ballots rejected due to voter error (late postmark, no registration, no signature, overvote, etc.) should not be re-canvassed during a subsequent machine or manual recount.
Recounts & Lost Ballots. During a recount, a few ballots are occasionally found in mail bags, trays or elsewhere inside the counting room. These are “found” ballots which have been in secure storage and in the continuous custody of election officials since Election Day. These ballots were temporarily lost due to a mistake by an election worker, not the voter. The canvassing board and election workers will canvass these lost ballots for the first time. If the voter did everything correctly (properly registered, signature on file, signed ballot, timely ballot delivery, no overvote/undervote), the canvassing board will add those votes to the others being recounted. State law specifically gives canvassing boards the authority to conduct such a limited recanvassing to correct apparent discrepancies or inconsistencies in the election returns.
Recounts & Ballot Security. State laws and regulations provide for the security of all ballots. At the polling place, ballots are placed in sealed containers and taken to the counting center by one or more teams that include a representative of at least two major political parties. When the sealed ballot containers arrive at the counting center, the chief elections official records the time, date, precinct name or number, and seal number of each ballot container. In the presence of major party observers who are available, ballots may be removed from the sealed containers at the elections department and consolidated into one sealed container for storage purposes. The containers may only be opened by the canvassing board as part of the canvass, or to conduct recounts, or under RCW 29A.60.170(3), or by order of the superior court in a contest or election dispute. If the canvassing board opens a ballot container, it shall make a full record of the additional tabulation or examination made of the ballots. This record must be added to any other record of the canvassing process in that county. If some ballots have not been properly and continuously maintained in a secure environment, the canvassing board should manually examine such ballots for damage or tampering and determine their authenticity and, ultimately, if they should be counted or not be counted.
Recounts & Missing Signatures. During a recount, a missing signature on a “found” absentee ballot affidavit, a lack of a valid voter registration, and/or the failure to submit a missing signature upon request of the election official prior to the day before initial certification, constitutes a voter mistake and such ballots should be rejected by the canvassing board. If signatures are missing from a county voter registration database, the county may search their computer back-up copies, paper voter registration files, Secretary of State Voter Registration Database or the paper voter registration files of the Secretary of State.
Recounts & Contested Ballots. During a recount any voter may initiate a contested election lawsuit if he or she thinks a mistake is about to be made and such voter may contest a completed recount within 10 days of final certification of such recount. Contested ballots should be kept segregated before and after being counted to preserve the status quo pending outcome of the pending litigation. There is an exception in which a single ballot or small group of ballots may be commingled if necessary to protect the secrecy of the ballot.