Originally published in The Seattle Times
As disinformation about the 2020 election and the security of vote-at-home elections persists, instilling public confidence is critical. Washington voters have every reason to be confident in their election system, and every reason to continue to improve it.
Washington is one of only eight states that automatically sends a ballot to their voters for every election, it routinely boasts some of the nation’s highest turnout, and it was the only state in 2020 to receive a perfect score from Brookings Institute for its preparedness for voting during a pandemic. Not to mention the state has been on the cutting edge of election innovations, from being one of the first states to adopt mail-in balloting to implementing same-day and automatic voter registration and the Future Voter program.
As the pandemic began to take shape in 2020, states and local jurisdictions from across the country looked to Washington state’s election officials for expertise and advice for ramping up their mail-ballot programs in the midst of a global health crisis. In fact, National Vote at Home Institute regards Washington as a model state for vote-at-home (or vote-by-mail) elections systems. Thanks to its mail-ballot accessibility and system resilience, the state in 2020 saw its highest turnout on record for a statewide primary in more than a half-century and near-record turnout in the general election.
However, a recent performance audit by the Washington State Auditor’s Office found that during the 2020 general election, the ballots of young voters, male voters and voters of color were more likely to be rejected due to voter-signature issues than other racial and demographic groups. Troublingly, the ballot rejection rate for Black voters was 2.49%, 1.59% for Native Americans, 1.57% for Hispanics, 1.24% for Asian/Pacific Islanders and 0.63% for white voters. And voters under the age of 26 accounted for more than 30% of rejected ballots.
The overall rejection rate was less than 1%, and the audit found no evidence of bias in decisions to accept or reject ballots. Nonetheless, state and local election officials agree the disparities warrant further examination. In fact, the Office of the Secretary of State requested that the state Legislature fund a study through the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance to evaluate the audit’s recommendations.
The audit outlined several innovations election officials could adopt to increase the chances of curing challenged ballots, and among the innovative practices recommended was robust ballot tracking.
Today, Washington voters can check the status of their ballot by logging in to VoteWA.gov. This lookup tool provides voters an opportunity to see when their ballot is on its way to them, when it has been received by their county elections office and whether it has been accepted or challenged (and ultimately, rejected). With end-to-end ballot tracking, however, voters are proactively notified via email and/or text by their local elections office when their ballot is out for delivery, when it has arrived at their home, when it has been received by the election office and when it has been accepted. If the ballot is not accepted, the ballot tracking service can quickly relay instructions to voters on how to cure their ballot so it may be accepted and counted. The system can even be configured to alert voters of upcoming elections, deadlines and other important voting information.
To eliminate voting disparities and stay ahead of the curve, the Washington Office of the Secretary of State is considering this innovation, which is currently used in three of the nation’s eight vote-at-home states as well as in many jurisdictions across the U.S. It’s convenient, transparent and accessible, much like tracking an online order. Plus, participating in ballot tracking programs has been shown to boost turnout by as much as 20%.
Before the Secretary of State’s Office could implement ballot tracking, migrating each of Washington’s 39 county election offices to VoteWA, the state’s voter registration and election management system launched in 2019, was crucial. With VoteWA now well-established, the secretary’s office is poised to develop an end-to-end ballot tracking system to serve voters statewide.
Washington state is home to some of the most accessible and secure elections in the country. Voting at home remains a time-tested, fair way to improve access and increase turnout across demographics. Implementing some of the recommendations from the audit, including robust ballot tracking, would serve to further enhance voters’ experience with and confidence in their elections system, and could turn the tide on some of the disparities in ballot-rejection rates.
Pat McCarthy is the Washington state auditor.
Steve Hobbs is Washington’s Secretary of State.
Lori Augino is the executive director for the National Vote at Home Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit dedicated to expanding vote by mail.