One week after the general election, about 12,000 Whatcom County ballots remained uncounted due to the high turnout and a large number of ballots that need extra attention, county Auditor Debbie Adelstein said.
Roughly 10 percent of the more than 100,000 ballots returned during the Nov. 6 election could not be read accurately by the counting machines. Those were duplicated to be fixed and counted later, Adelstein said. As of Tuesday, Nov. 13, some 6,000 duplicated ballots were still uncounted.
Whenever a voter corrects a vote on the ballot or marks it improperly - with a check mark, for example, instead of a line completing the arrow - the ballot has to be copied. The Auditor's Office is not allowed to mark the original ballot.
Stringent state rules that preserve a ballot's integrity and the intent of the voter - in addition to zero tolerance for error - mean that in a major election it takes all three weeks before election certification to process ballots.
"We're a voter-intent state, so we have to look at the ballots," Adelstein said. "The model I always have tried to use - do we want it faster or do we want it right? I think everyone has always sided on, ensure the count is done accurately rather than speed it through."
Not that the methodical approach has significantly delayed any of the results this year. Every race on the county ballot, from Public Utility District commissioner to president of the United States, was decided by a comfortable margin.
In addition to the duplicated ballots, hundreds of others are being challenged if the voter's intent isn't clear or if the signature doesn't appear to match the one on file. A canvassing board will decide what to do with the challenged ballots at a meeting Tuesday, Nov. 20. Voters with questionable signatures are being contacted and can resolve the challenge by providing another signature.
Turnout figures won't be official until counties certify their ballot counts on Nov. 27. But with only a few ballots likely to be added to the total in Whatcom County, turnout is 83.5 percent, better than the 81 percent predicted by Secretary of State Sam Reed.
Statewide, turnout was 79.8 percent as of 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, according to the Secretary of State's website.
The Auditor's Office hired 40 temporary workers to process ballots this year, Adelstein said. Regular staff worked overtime for six hours on Saturday, election observer Jim Fox said in an email.
The cost of the election was not yet calculated, but the last presidential election in 2008 cost the county $385,872, Adelstein said. Salaries were the largest expense, at $147,077. Most of the remainder went to printing and mailing ballots, software, maintenance and postage.
The federal and state governments do not compensate county auditor's offices for what they put on the ballot. This year, the PUD and the Port of Bellingham will pay a small fraction of the total cost in Whatcom County.
In 2008, the county was on the hook for $310,000 of the election cost, Adelstein said.
The auditor said she is open to ideas to speed up the ballot count but doesn't see a reason to radically change the system.
"We need to keep this in perspective," she said. "The only time this becomes a factor is in presidential elections. The other times, by Thursday (after Election Day) we're done."
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