The evolution of local elections

// County Auditor Julie Anderson rolls with election changes.

The way Pierce County residents vote is changing and Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson and her staff are finding ways to adapt.

The proliferation of voting by mail is perhaps the most significant change in the election landscape. Anderson hosted a public forum May 7 to discuss the role of the county auditor during those types of future elections.

Anderson noted, there is no election day anymore, but rather an election season.

Pierce County was the last statewide that still operated polling places, something that will soon be gone due to legislation passed in Olympia this session.

Pierce County has 124 jurisdictions and 507 elected officials. It has 380 precincts, which means the auditor must issue 380 different ballots. A majority of voters in the county have been voting absentee. Anderson said 25 percent fill out and mail in their ballots as soon as they receive them. In the general election of 2010, the number of ballots received on election day dropped by about 7,500 compared to the same day in 2000.

A change that has been implemented elsewhere in the nation that is coming here is ballots in languages other than English. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires oral and written assistance for the following language minority populations: Hispanic, Asian and Native American. Counties are required to offer ballots in specific languages when the population of people speaking them as their native tongue reaches a certain percentage. Anderson said that is likely to be Spanish and Korean in this county. King County offers ballots in Chinese in certain precincts, she noted. Although there will be an additional cost to print ballots in different languages, Anderson said she does not have a specific cost estimate at this time.

Data from the 2010 Census indicates that Washington’s population has grown to warrant a 10th seat in Congress. All nine of the existing Congressional districts will undergo significant boundary changes, needing to be re-shaped to accommodate the new district.

Another process is underway to redraw Pierce County Council districts. After the council approves the plan, Anderson will be required to draw precinct lines based on the new boundaries.

Anderson did not mention Dale Washam, the county assessor/treasurer, by name, but did bring up the fact there is a recall effort underway. She and her staff must prepare for the possibility that enough signatures will be collected on petitions calling for Washam’s recall to get it on the ballot. This number is 64,495. If the recall organizers are successful, this will be the largest recall effort in county history in terms of the number of voters, Anderson told the audience.

Unlike some states, Washington is a voter intent state. Anderson explained that this means staff in auditors’ offices are required to do their best to determine what a voter meant when they fill out their ballot incorrectly. In Washington, 39 percent do not follow instructions, she noted. Examples include circling the name of a candidate, instead of filling in the arrow next to their name. Or a voter may fill in the arrow, then cross out the corresponding name and put a name below on the line for a write-in candidate.

Ballots, envelopes, reports and other materials are archived based on a retention schedule set by the state. This is 22 months for federal elections and 60 days for non-federal.

Staff members split the audience into several groups and gave them a tour of the facility. Visitors were able to see where incoming ballots are placed on a mail sorter and the room where signatures are verified

The office plans to hold a citizenship celebration on Sept. 17, which happens to be Constitution Day. Anderson said such events are held in Seattle on a regular basis, but have not been done in Pierce County since 1948. She said it will be an opportunity to recognize immigrants who have successfully completed the process to become United States citizens and encourage them to vote and partake in the other traditions associated with civic engagement.

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