Elections

An election season like no other

An interview with Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall

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An historic presidential election, numerous contested local races and an international pandemic are not an ideal combination.

Citizens are urged more than ever to get out and vote. But as COVID-19 infections mount higher every day, other states are offering a voting option that we in Washington state have had since 2011. 

The New York Times reported that three-quarters of Americans are eligible to vote by mail this year, the most of any election in the history of the country. The process is unfamiliar to most and has put Washington’s election process under a national microscope. Voters want to know that the process is secure.

Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall, in an interview with The JOLT News on Tuesday, said she’s received more questions about the election process this election cycle than is typical. Those questions have come from national media outlets as well as from local citizens.

In the following transcript — which has been edited for length and clarity — Hall describes the engagement she’s had with voters, how her office has adapted to safety guidelines, and how cybersecurity has become increasingly vital.

 

You’ve sent out, and received, ballots. How has it been going so far?

It’s really been going great. One of the things that we’re trying to emphasize to the community is we want them to vote as early as possible. If their mind is made up on who they’re going to vote for, why not just return the ballot? And so far, people have done that. We’ve had the biggest volume of ballots picked up on the first day of pick-up than we’ve ever had in history. We had almost 16,000 ballots in our drop box over the weekend. And we picked up … over 1,100 ballots today from the post office. We really appreciate that because in this COVID environment, [because of social distancing requirements], we can only have half of the people doing ballot inspection and checking signatures in our ballot processing center.

Do all ballots go out at once, or is it in waves?

First mailing we do is 45 days prior to the election, and that’s for our military and overseas voters. That’s about 8,000 voters. Then we pull the entire voter file, everybody who is registered at that moment in time, and those ballots all get mailed together. 

After that, if we have people newly registered or they moved, or [they damaged] their ballot, we do subsequent mailings daily.

There’s been a robust national conversation surrounding this election in particular. Has your office approached its responsibilities differently?

Actually, yes. We’ve been fortunate to receive some grant funding, so we put a lot more resources into voter outreach to try to encourage people to register if they’re not registered, to vote early, and to just vote. We’re also mov[ing] our voter registration and voter services out of the courthouse to South Puget Sound Community College beginning tomorrow. Because if you’ve been in the courthouse, it’s a very small facility, especially the Elections office. You can only have two people in the lobby and physically distanced. So, we’re offering drive-through voter services at the college, and we … put a drop box at the college as well.

The pandemic has thrown a wrench in seemingly every gear. How has that materialized for your office?

We had to modify our ballot processing center to ensure we can keep our workers and staff safe. We have a lot of plexiglass dividers. If you’ve ever been in our ballot processing center, it’s a big, huge open warehouse, and that’s for a reason. We want everybody to be able to see what’s going on, just for transparency purposes. Everyone’s wearing gloves and masks. Nobody is sharing supplies, everyone has a little pail that contains their pens and envelope openers, things like that. We also have put in hand sanitizing stations all over. We take the temperature of every person who comes into our facility. That’s a requirement. 

We bought all-new chairs so they’re easy to clean. They used to be upholstered, now they’re vinyl. We have two shifts a day; we don’t have people sit in the same chairs. We actually rotate the chairs so people don’t sit in chairs immediately after the group before them. We’ve had to take a lot of precautions like that, which is very different. [It] has certainly been an interesting challenge, but my staff has definitely risen to that challenge.

Washington has been a vote-by-mail state for a long time now. Has there been more attention on that process, either from local voters or outside entities?

Absolutely. I’ve talked to a lot of national media. I’ve talked to election administrators across the country. And … there are more questions locally then there have been in the past. We’ve been doing vote-by-mail for a long time in Washington state, and we have really, really good practices and processes. We’re very good at pivoting, because laws change every year. So when COVID hit, we adjusted and adapted quite quickly.

On your office’s website, you cite cybersecurity as being one of your priorities. Does that apply to elections?

Absolutely. In fact it was the 2016 election that really created a laser-focus on cybersecurity. In 2017, Elections was deemed critical infrastructure by the Department of Homeland Security. So we have a lot of resources resulting from that. We set up a cybersecurity task force in 2018, after I met with Homeland Security a couple of times. “[W]e’re really only secure as our weakest link in the county. 

So this task force was set up. I chaired it along with the assistant county manager. It was comprised of directors, elected officials, high-level folks and of course IT staff. We won a national award this year from the National Association of Counties for our efforts to bring everybody together. We had several security assessments by the Department of Homeland Security where they actually tried to penetrate our county infrastructure. And they gave us a lot of best practices and recommendations, which we’ve implemented. We’ve put a lot more safeguards in place as far as tools and early detection systems and security information management. We also had the state auditor’s office come out and do a cybersecurity audit. Their audit took two years, and we just finished that. I feel we’ve done as much as we can afford to do.

Have you noted any instances of election misinformation within your jurisdiction?

Actually, yes we have. Not a lot, but we did require Craigslist to take an ad off their site. Because we’re deemed critical infrastructure, we have the luxury of having those direct contacts with social media like Facebook, Twitter and Craigslist. We can reach out to them when we see misinformation and ask that they take it down. And they are very, very responsive.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

If people in the community see misinformation, or read misinformation, be it on Twitter or somebody’s Facebook page — we actually had to report an individual post that was making false allegations — we ask that people notify us, take a screenprint, email my office at elections@co.thurston.wa.us or tcauditor@co.thurston.wa.us. [P]eople in the community are really our best eyes and ears to help us combat and fight misinformation and disinformation that might be out in social media land.

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