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NPI talks to King County Elections Director Julie Wise about the 2018 general election

Editor’s Note: We’re two weeks out from General Election Day 2018. As required by law, King County Elections has conducted its preelection Logic & Accuracy Test. I observed the test and afterwards spoke to Elections Director Julie Wise about preparations for the 2018 November general election, ballot security, and reforms like prepaid postage on ballot return envelopes that are making it easier to vote. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

NPI’s ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Hi, Julie. Last time we talked, King County Elections had just announced prepaid postage [on ballot return envelopes], and we’ve [now] had a first election with that. What were the results? Was it a success?

JULIE WISE: Yeah, it was a great success! We saw approximately four to five percent increase in turnout in the [Top Two] election that I really attribute to prepaid postage. I really don’t see any sort of other issues on a [Top Two] ballot that would lead voters to have voted in a higher percentage, or turned out in a higher percentage. So it was a great success.

And we also saw that voters’ behavior changed. Where [previously] fifty percent of voters were returning ballots through a drop box and [fifty percent] through the United States Postal Service, [we saw] seventy percent of voters returning [their ballots] through the United States Postal Service instead.

So that, and, we didn’t see any issues through the United States Postal Service. USPS did an awesome job of making sure that we received ballots without any delay, and there were no issues. So, to me, that’s a win.

NPI: So even though we had more drop boxes available, people really gravitated more towards the Postal Service.

JULIE WISE: Yes. I was quite amazed myself, is that yes, absolutely… we saw voters returning more through the Postal Service rather than our drop boxes.

NPI: Do we have any usability research or any feedback that indicates voters understood the messaging that was present in their ballot packets — that they could now return a ballot without a stamp?

JULIE WISE: Absolutely. I don’t have necessarily specific data — but what I do know is that my team and I would go through batches and batches of ballots that were being returned through the United States Postal Service, and in each tray of over two-hundred and fifty ballots, we would see maybe one ballot that had an actual stamp affixed to it. Which to me really says that they saw the information, and heard that postage was already provided, because oftentimes, we actually see when we get ballots back from our drop boxes that they have stamps on them.

And I don’t know if that’s because people think that they needed to have a stamp, or if that’s because they were going to go to the post office, then ran out of time, and then went to the drop box instead.

NPI: Right, that could be.

Now, with respect to prepaid postage, again, we’re now in the general election. And so this is our first general election with all prepaid postage. What are your expectations? Do you have any thoughts about what the turnout could be, versus, let’s say 2014, which would be the last comparable election?

JULIE WISE: Yeah. I think we’re going to see a higher turnout. I think that that can be attributed to excitement around the actual races and issues on the ballot. But I also think that we have removed a real barrier. [Whether] it’s perceived or not, it is a real barrier to many people who simply just do not have a stamp.

And even though we’ve added more and more drop boxes — and we have, again, sixty-six drop boxes across King County, and we know about ninety-five percent of our voters have a drop box within a two-mile radius of their residence — we know that removing that barrier and increasing that access is what we need to be doing as election officials to ensure that everyone has access to the ballot box, and that everyone has their voices heard. So it’s just the right thing to do. I hope to see a higher percent turnout then we’re forecasting right now, which is sixty percent.

I’m hopeful that we’ll see even higher than that. And I think we’ll continue to see voter behavior be returning their ballot earlier, and through the Post Office.

NPI: Next year, we’re implementing another barrier removal — same-day registration. How is that going to go?

I mean, do you think your office is ready for that?

JULIE WISE: Absolutely. We’re really excited. We’ve been, of course, planning for a year already. We have another year before that… actually, about about six months before that’s actually implemented. So we will be having accessible voting centers, where you will be able to actually register to vote at across King County.

So we will have vote centers in Bellevue, Seattle, Renton, Kent, and Federal Way, where voters can go in and get registered, including on Election Day.

And I think that, that again is a great barrier to remove, because people are not always thinking about [an] election thirty days before the election.

So having that same-day voter registration will absolutely increase access and increase opportunity for people to vote.

NPI: [Beginning in 2019], if someone has not registered in advance of the election… let’s say it’s Election Day and they want to vote: Do they have to go to the accessible voting center, or can they register online?

JULIE WISE: So yeah, that’s [going to] be really great for next year.

When [the Access to] Democracy Package is implemented, including preregistration of sixteen and seventeen year olds, and same-day voter registration, and automatic voter registration, they will be able to register online up to eight days before the election date, which is awesome.

Because right now, that deadline is twenty-nine days before the election date. So that’s going to increase a lot of access and the reason why we did that is so that we make sure that auditors and election administrators across the state still have time to be able to enter all of those new voter registrations. So that’s why we gave [administrators] an eight-day window before Election Day, but I think it’s a really exciting opportunity for voters to be able to just have more access.

NPI: So if you register on Election Day, you would do so at one of the centers, and have to go there in order to do it that day, or in the immediate week prior to Election Day. So people would just have to find the nearest one to them.

And then they would go there.

JULIE WISE: Yes. If they didn’t do it online before, you know, the eight days before Election Day, then they would have to go in person to one of those locations.

NPI: But there’s more locations [planned] than there have been up to this point.

JULIE WISE: Absolutely. Yes. We [will] be adding more locations, and, I really think the message will be, for us to our voters, I think across the state is, to don’t wait until Election Day to get registered — register soon.

But, absolutely, they’ll be a lot of access and opportunities across the county for people to be able to get registered.

And even for this general election, you know, people still have time. We have another week until the in-person deadline to be registered.

That’s [Monday] October 29th, so voters still have time for this general midterm election, if they’re not currently a Washington State voter, to go to Seattle or Renton to the elections offices [during business hours] to register.

NPI: So two choices.

JULIE WISE: Two choices.

NPI: Now, today, we did the Logic and Accuracy Test. I think there’s a lot of confusion about what that is. Can you just explain, very broadly, what it is?

Because there are people who think it’s something that it isn’t.

JULIE WISE: Right. So every single county — all thirty-nine counties across Washington State — are required to conduct a Logic and Accuracy Test prior to each election. The Secretary of State’s office sends representatives from their office to come to each of the elections offices.

This [test] is a predetermined matrix by the Secretary of State’s office of how many ballots, how many are marked for the first position, or the second position, of those different choices on each race — and they come, the Secretary of State’s office comes with that matrix, and we run the ballots through our scan machines.

These are test ballots that have been prefilled out to meet that matrix that has been required by the Secretary of State’s office. We run those sample test ballots through our scanners to verify that they are calibrated correctly, working correctly, and properly scanning in the ovals. So it’s one of many tests.

We also do a [separate exercise during which we put] tens of thousands of ballots through all of our scanners prior to the Logic and Accuracy Test.

We also do another test during the election… I would basically call it a hand manual recount [simulation], where we physically pull out thousands of ballots, and we are manually recounting real actual live ballots from voters, and making sure that they were actually counted correctly.

NPI: So what people should know is that this is one of the battery of tests; it is only a test. There is no information stored in the system after the test is over; we’re simply checking to make sure the equipment works, and everyone should be pleased to hear the tests were successful.

JULIE WISE: Correct. The tests went successfully, the machines are counting as they should, and it is just a test and only a test with just test ballots.

Of course, we’re starting to receive real ballots in; we’ve got about two percent of ballot returns so far. We’ve just received another 25,000 ballots this morning.

So I think that that’s pretty good two weeks before Election Day, but we’re ready to go. We’ve got our systems tested and vetted; we’ve been working with a whole host of partners, from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Secretary of State’s office, King County’s IT [Information Technology], National Guard.

In fact, we had press conference here last week with the Governor and the Secretary of State, Kim Wyman, reassuring our voters that we’ve been vigilant and we’re watching all of our election systems, and they’re prepared for this election.

NPI: So we’re in one of the key areas of the [King County Elections processing] facility, and there actually are a lot of computers here, but they’re not connected to the Internet, and that’s an important thing that people should be aware of, right, is that we don’t actually connect our scanning computers to the Internet at all.

JULIE WISE: Yeah, I think it’s a really great point. And I think that, you know, Washington State, and I would say King County, is leading, really, an effort of making sure we’ve got a really secure election system.

So all of the nine scanners are not connected to the Internet… [they are] airgapped here at King County Elections’ facility, where people cannot hack into our elections system. I also think it’s really important to note that though there’s not a perfect system, an election system, or any system that I’m aware of — vote-by-mail, I strongly believe, is the strongest and most secure election system in the entire country, because you have a paper trail. We have a paper trail for everything.

So if you’re going to vote at one of the accessible voting centers, or you’re going to vote, of course, your paper ballot that you receive in the mail, we have those records. And we’ll have records of this election for twenty-two months, so we can go recount, we can look at ballots, and we know that they weren’t altered by any sort of equipment or machine at a polling place that may be uploaded to a memory card, or be transmitted through the Internet.

NPI: Right. You just mentioned memory cards and earlier, airgapped [equipment]. Do we have any protocols in place to stop people from bringing, let’s say, unknown USB drives and compact discs, or other removable media, that they could plug into one of our computers that’s not connected to the Internet?

JULIE WISE: That’s a fantastic question. If you look around the actual facility, you will see security seals on all of those USB [ports]… anything that you could plug into the computers. All of those portals have actually been covered and sealed. We also have fifty cameras in the facility that are monitoring, 24/7, the activity.

We’re being filmed right now. And in fact, we have a camera on us that actually [provides live footage through our website], so that people from across the world can watch us actually working. So we have levels and levels and layers and layers of security here at Elections. But any time we’re taking information… so, come Election Night, we’re going to push a button, if you will, that’s going tabulate all the results.

NPI: Because no tabulation occurs before Election Night.

JULIE WISE: Correct. Then, at that point, we’re going to open a brand-new USB drive, and we’re going to take the information — the vote totals — from the tabulation room, and bring that to a computer that can then put that information onto the Internet. So, it’s always a brand new one each time, and that, of course, is observed by staff [and] observers.

As you saw today, many observers [were] here watching that process, and there’s only eleven staff members that are allowed to go into that room. [They] have to be two at a time, [they each] have to use their badge, and biometric [authentication], and cut a seal, and of course they have the camera as well, and the video of them.

NPI: So we’ve essentially made sure that this system is ironclad as we know how to make it. So people can [feel good] that nothing is amiss here.

JULIE WISE: Absolutely. It’s really important to me that people have confidence in the elections system. One of the things I think that’s really cool, is that King County Elections has, literally, a transparent loop for voters to come [walk].

So if you want to watch us working on the web cameras, you can do that.

But you can also go around a fifth of a mile loop, and actually watch the process at any time. In addition to that, we invited the Department of Homeland Security in, to do a physical audit of this building, to make sure that we have physical security to the level and the standards that are necessary.

They compared this elections office — the first elections office that has requested an actual audit from Department of Homeland Security — to nuclear sites. We are making sure that this is a secure facility, and that we’re protecting everyone’s votes and ballots. It’s important to me that voters have trust in that, but of course, don’t take my word for it… come down and see it, watch us on TV.

Check us out on our website, about all the different levels and layers and audits and things that we’re doing here to make sure that every vote is kept secure.

NPI: The loop Julie’s talking about is actually inside the building. You can actually look in through a number of windows and you could see what’s going on. And there’s basically a self-guided tour, right, that you can take?

JULIE WISE: There is, there is! So, along the way, there is an actual poster talking about what process you are now watching, and you are observing.

And, yeah, like you said, it’s literally Plexiglass walls for a fifth of a mile, where you are watching [anything] from signature verification — where we’re looking at the signature on the return envelope, and comparing that to the voters’ voter registration record — to actually opening ballots, to actually scanning ballots. And so voters, citizens, anyone who wants to can come. We’re here Monday through Friday, 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM. You can watch that process.

NPI: One final question. There was a report coming out of Nextdoor about ballots possibly being stolen, which has not been verified.

The City of Snoqualmie said there was no evidence of this; King County Elections staff said there was no evidence… but people, obviously, may be feeling very anxious as we get closer to Election Day, just because of the high stakes, and people’s feelings about the election. So, if people, for whatever reason, don’t have their ballot, or they’re worried that King County Elections didn’t get it when they sent it back in, what should they do?

JULIE WISE: Absolutely. It’s so important. So, all voters in King County should have their ballot by now. So we’re two weeks before Election Day. Every voter should have their ballot. If they don’t, do one of two things.

Either call us at 206-296-VOTE (8683), or get online at kingcounty.gov/elections.

There’s a really cool MyVoter information application.

You just need to enter your name and your date of birth, and that’s going to tell you when we mailed you your ballot, when you should receive it, and it has a great quick link right there to request a replacement ballot. If you do not have a ballot, you need to request a replacement one at this point, by calling or going online.

NPI: Okay, and if, once they’ve voted, if they are concerned that their ballot may not have made it back to King County, there is something they can do, right?

JULIE WISE: Absolutely. On our website again, you can track your ballot. So, as when you see that we sent it out to you, at that same MyVoter information application, you’re going to be able to see when we received it, and that we’ve completed the signature verification, and that it’s moved on to opening and to be counted. So it shows you those tracks, those different steps along the way, which is a really great way to ensure that your ballot has been counted.

If you don’t want to get on the Internet, you’re welcome to call our office again at 206-296-VOTE (8683) to make sure that we’ve received your ballot. But if anyone has any concerns about mail theft in general, they need to contact their local police and report that. I always encourage people…. I myself have a locked mailbox. I think that that’s really important, just for identity theft in general.

NPI: For future elections: if they want, they can have Elections send them a ballot to a post office box, right? They don’t have to receive it at their home address…

JULIE WISE: Absolutely.

NPI: They do have the freedom to receive it in a locked box at the Post Office.

JULIE WISE: Absolutely, wherever they want us to mail it, as long as we’ve got, you know, a residential address… or, for people that are experiencing homelessness, a cross street, so that we know what issues you should be voting on where where you live. You know, where you rest your head at night, is really associated to those school districts, cities, but of course, your legislative district, your congressional district… so we want to make sure that people get the right ballot for themselves, but absolutely, we’ll mail it to wherever they would like.

NPI: All right. Well, thank you, Julie.

JULIE WISE: Thank you.