The Ballot Processing Center in Tumwater was filled with people this morning, but was almost entirely quiet.
The workers, just over 20 of them this morning, sat at long rows of tables, separated by plexiglass barriers and several feet of distance. They wore gloves and N95 masks as they silently opened ballot after ballot, checking to make sure they were filled out correctly.
Just to get into the center, visitors must answer an electronic questionnaire at a computer terminal, confirming they haven’t tested positive for COVID-19 or come into contact with anyone who has. Finally, visitors and workers are subject to a temperature screening. They stand behind a curtain and a face a monitor which quickly scans their body’s temperature. Fever is a common symptom of COVID-19, so temperatures must be normal to get inside the processing center.
The safety measures are a reminder that the election season has been a unique one. COVID-19 has presented logistical issues for election workers. The U.S. Postal Service has experienced a funding crisis. And all the while, voters must decide numerous contested local and state races and the most contentious presidential election in memory.
Meanwhile, Thurston County Elections officials are bracing themselves for record-breaking voter turnout. Auditor Mary Hall said we could see turnout as high as 90 percent. The current record is 86.12 percent, during the 2008 general election. As of last night, turnout was around 64.5 percent.
Projections show as many as 1,000 to 2,000 people will show up to the voting center to vote on Election Day. Those projections are based on 2016 election statistics and a study conducted by MIT. That study, Hall said, focused on Colorado’s 2016 voter turnout rates after the state passed same-day voter registration into law. Washington passed same-day registration in 2019, meaning someone could register to vote, and then immediately cast a ballot, allowing people to register and vote up until the last moment. While it’s unclear how that law will affect last-minute voting, Hall said the MIT study gives them some idea. It allows her to see how similarly-sized jurisdictions in Colorado were affected by same-day registration.
The center was moved from the courthouse to South Puget Sound Community College, because the office in the courthouse wasn’t large enough to allow social distancing. The college allows for drive-through services, meaning in the next few days, cars are certain to form long lines on campus. Hall said they have formed a traffic plan by working with a local fair coordinator to keep the line organized. Public Works employees will work as flaggers, and eight campus security officers and off-duty sheriff’s office deputies will help manage traffic. Cars will be routed through the Crosby Boulevard entrance to the east of campus. A tow truck will be on-site Saturday, Monday and Tuesday to tow cars out of line if they break down or run out of gas. Those cars will be taken to a parking lot, and elections staff will help them from there.
“It could be a very, very long wait,” said Hall, who encouraged folks who plan to show up on Election Day to get there as early as possible. The center will be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday.
“I hope Monday’s busy. I really hope Saturday’s busy,” said Hall, who encouraged people to vote as early as possible. The more people who vote on Saturday and Monday will cut down the long line on Election Day.
The auditor’s office has encouraged early voting throughout the election, going as far as mailing ballots six days earlier than usual. Many heeded the message of early voting, with Thurston County breaking turnout records already. Even though voters got their hands on ballots nearly a week early, the numbers have been extraordinary.
“The first pickup is always big, but then it tends to fall off a little bit,” said Hall, noting that it hasn’t been the case this time. The first pickup brought in around 15,000 ballots, with 9,000 the next day and 13,000 the next. A later day had an increase to 17,000, said Hall.
“People are simply voting earlier, which is the national message,” she said, referencing constant urges from nationally prominent candidates and activists. Much of the push for early voting is fueled by the intensely contentious and divisive election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
“If voters haven’t mailed their ballots by today, I really, strongly urge them to use a drop box. … There’s an insert with their ballot which lists all the drop boxes,” said Hall today. Drop boxes allow workers to gather and verify ballots quicker than ballots that are mailed.