Local Election

FAQ: Can Whatcom voters take ballot selfies? Do write-in votes count?

Election worker Jennifer Nichols carries a box of ballots after completing a signature verification process on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015, at the Whatcom County Auditor's Office in Bellingham, Wash.
Election worker Jennifer Nichols carries a box of ballots after completing a signature verification process on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015, at the Whatcom County Auditor's Office in Bellingham, Wash. eabell@bhamherald.com

Can someone rig the 2016 election? Is taking a selfie with my ballot against the law? If I write in a candidate, will my vote be counted?

Find the answers to those and other common election questions below, with answers compiled from the Washington Secretary of State’s Office and Whatcom County Auditor’s Office.

Q: Is taking a selfie with my ballot against the law?

A: Unlike some states that prohibit it, in Washington state you can take a selfie with your ballot filled out and post it online if you want to.

However, Whatcom County and state election officials discourage you from posting ballot selfies.

It is illegal to look at someone’s ballot for reasons that are against the law, such as vote buying, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Q: Are write-in votes counted?

A: All voters can cast write-in votes for candidates not on the ballot, but those votes may not be tallied by name unless the total number of write-ins could change the outcome of that race.

For the presidential race, that means there have to be as many or more write-ins than the number of votes received by the winning candidate for them to be tallied, according to the state elections office.

“We discourage people from writing in (a name) unless they really are somebody running a write-in campaign,” said Diana Bradrick, chief deputy auditor for Whatcom County.

Some people have won races via write-in campaigns, Bradrick said, but she discourages people from filling in the line just for the sake of it, since ballots with write-ins have to be handled differently.

In some cases, voters write something in because they mistakenly think they are required to vote in every race even if they don’t like either candidate, which is not the case, Bradrick said.

Q: Do I have to mark a vote for everything on the ballot?

A: No. Voters can leave any topic on the ballot blank, and vote for as many or as few issues as they’d like.

Q: Can the election be rigged?

A: Among other security measures, Washington uses mail-in ballots, which provide a paper trail that can be verified during an audit of the ballot tally.

Tabulating equipment is tested at a federally-approved independent testing lab, then tested at the state and county level, to make sure it is secure and can pass logic and accuracy tests before every election, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

After the election, the office audits precincts and races at random to compare vote totals from the tabulating equipment with hand counts of ballots before the election is certified.

Q: What happens if someone tries to vote twice?

A: When a ballot is received, the signature on the outer envelope is verified by trained election staff against the one on file before the ballot is accepted.

Then, that voter’s record in a statewide database is marked so the office knows they’ve received a ballot from that person.

Say someone comes in for a replacement ballot, because they never received their first one. Once they vote, that would be marked in the system, Bradrick said.

“Now say their first ballot shows up. If they were to try and vote that, our system will say (buzzer sound), you already got credit, so it gets challenged for second ballot voted,” Bradrick said.

Questioned ballots go to the Whatcom County Canvassing Board, which makes the final call on whether to count them.

“The staff never makes the final decision to not count ballots,” Bradrick said.

If there is suspected wrongdoing, that could be forwarded to a prosecuting attorney for investigation.

Q: Can someone change their vote after they already turned in their ballot?

A: No. Once a ballot is in the mail or in a drop box, it’s gone, Bradrick said.

“If somebody deposited a ballot with us and said they want to change their vote, because of the secret ballot system, I don’t know where that ballot is anymore,” Bradrick said. “Once it’s been checked in and taken out of the mailing envelope, we couldn’t retrieve it.”

Q: How do you catch people who might try to vote for someone else?

A: If the signature on the outside of the ballot envelope doesn’t match the signature on file for that person, the voter gets a letter from the auditor’s office asking them to verify their signature.

Sometimes, someone’s signature has changed over time, so they need to put a new one on file.

The ballot is not counted until that person either verifies their signature or the canvassing board decides it should be counted. People can verify their signature after the election as long as it is before the certification date, which is Nov. 29.

“We really encourage people if they get one of these notices to take care of it. It’s not like if it didn’t match your ballot gets thrown out, there’s an opportunity to fix it,” Bradrick said.

Q: How much postage do I need if I mail in my ballot and where can I turn it in?

A: The ballot in Whatcom County is too large this year for one stamp, so voters need 68 cents in postage if they want to send it through the mail.

Alternatively, voters can turn in ballots for free at drop boxes around the county.

Technically, the U.S. Postal Service will deliver ballots even if they don’t have the right postage on them, but the county will be charged for the missing amount.

Q: When do I need to turn my ballot in?

A: Drop boxes close at 8 p.m. Election Day, Nov. 8.

If ballots are mailed, they must be postmarked on or before Nov. 8.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil