Grays Harbor County Auditor Joe MacLean has had to field more than the usual amount of inquiries regarding the hot-button topic of mail-in balloting leading up to the general election on Nov. 3.
With the national news media ablaze over mail-in voting this past month, many a question has been raised to how local elections are handled on the Harbor.
“It’s something that comes up every four years. Every four years you are under a little more pressure,” MacLean said during a phone interview on Thursday. “Any time you have a Presidential election there is always a heightened sense of people wanting to know what’s going on and you always have your conspiracy theories floating around and it’s just a matter of every four years you just have to handle it.”
But MacLean, a Republican who has well over a decade of working in elections at both the state and local levels in Washington, said voters in Grays Harbor County can rest assured that their votes will be counted correctly, as the state’s mail-in voting process has been honed in over the past 15 years.
“We’ve been looked at as the pioneers,” MacLean said. “It does take a lot of time and experience.”
MacLean was elected to his post in Nov. 2018 after working on elections at the state level under Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman as well as for Okanogan County in his 13 years of election experience. He said that while other states are weighing the pros and cons of moving to a mail-in ballot system for the first time, Washington has implemented safeguards over the years to secure voter safety and discourage voter fraud.
“The accuracy of the voter roles in Washington state are going to be way different than in any other state because one of the things we have is a certification and training program, and that is something you don’t see in most any other state,” he said. “So all of my permanent staff are certified election administrators that had to have gone through at least 40 hours of training prior to receiving certification and two years of service. They have to maintain that certification annually.”
But the measures to secure local elections doesn’t end there as MacLean offered his office takes multiple measures to ensure the voter roles are up to date.
“We go through the obituaries every week that are printed in the newspapers and the websites. We also do a cross comparison with the Department of Health and Social Security death index,” he said.
MacLean added that Washington state is also part of the ERIC (Electronic Registration Information Center) program, which cross references voter roles quarterly from 30 states to verify if a voter registered in Grays Harbor County is also registered in another state.
After a registered voter has mailed their ballot or dropped it off at one of several ballot box locations, MacLean assures that a voter’s secrecy is protected and the vote is counted, with plans to hopefully install a camera system that will stream the ballot intake process for the community to view online before election day.
“Voter.votewa.gov is the best way to check to make sure that your ballot has been turned in and accepted,” he said, acknowledging that while that website will track your ballot, due to privacy measures no specific voting data is available. “Because of the secrecy process we go through to ensure secrecy of each individual voter, we can show that the ballot has been counted and received, but how you mark your ballot is a secret.
“They’re going to know that their ballot was returned in the envelope they sent in and it’s not going to be changed in the process, and that their signature was verified and that their ballot was accepted and counted. But I can’t tell you if this ballot in front of me goes to John Doe — for secrecy purposes. Just like when we were back at poll sites, you’d drop your ballot in a big, black box and walked away.”
But additional processes performed by election officials help to further secure the election process.
“We have recounts in the state and that’s why we do checks for anomalies in the system,” MacLean said. “And we do a certification of the system prior to the election and make sure it is counting the votes you marked correctly.”
With arguably the most important general election of our lifetime two months away, MacLean expects his staff to be busier than normal on election night, especially if the high turnout from August’s primary holds true.
“I’m guesstimating that the general election will hit 70-plus percent,” MacLean predicted, noting that 53.95 percent of the county’s approximate 46,000 registered voters voted in the primary, well above the average of 30-40 percent. “The general is probably going to set records this year.”
MacLean also addressed the issues of potential fraud in the mail-in voting process, adding that the reports of nefarious illegality in the system are seen in states new to the process with little experience and safeguards.
“The concerns I get are the people reading the Facebook posts and all the different news and wanting to know if this is what is happening in Washington state, and no it is not,” he affirmed. “This is something we’ve been doing for 15-plus years. … The national media has been plaguing us a little bit, but what we do in Washington state is not what the national media is talking about. The concerns that come up in the national media is of the states that are going vote-by-mail that have never done vote-by-mail before. It’s something that we’ve been doing for decades now and that we have figured out.”
The mail-in fraud MacLean states he’s seen in his time as an election official is usually of the most harmless variety.
“It’s such a minimalist number (in the state) that it’s not going to constitute the voter fraud that (the mainstream media) is talking about,” he said. “The voter fraud you might find would be a wife forging a husband’s ballot. And 99 percent of the time the prosecutor’s office is not going to go after that person for doing that. … That’s the type of stuff we’ve seen, but nothing along the lines of what the reports are in the national media.
MacLean addressed another concern making the rounds online regarding how ballot envelopes are earmarked.
“Our envelopes don’t say ‘R’ or ‘D’ on them because we don’t register by party in Washington state,” he said. “Here you are registered as a person and not as a party.”
But while mail-in voting and the potential fraud surrounding it has been an issue on the national stage of late, there is a larger challenge MacLean said is present in Grays Harbor County and across the state.
“The challenges are pretty much the same from county to county. The biggest challenge that we run into is getting people to register and to vote,” he said. “We have four elections a year, minimum. And the ones that affect us the most are the small elections. The school districts, city and town elections, etc.”
To register to vote and/or check your voter registration, visit the Grays Harbor County elections webpage at http://www.co.grays-harbor.wa.us/government/Auditors/elections.php/. You can also go to the state voter portal at https://voter.votewa.gov/ to see whether your voter status is “active” or if you need to update your voter registration, see a voter’s guide and get other information to help you vote.
Dial 360-249-4232 to contact the auditor’s office from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.