Officials hail centralized elections building as a ‘milestone’

A King County Sheriff Department deputy sits just beyond the turnstiles, beeping because someone didn’t have a key card. Behind the deputy is a chain-link cage, guarded by a fingerprint scanner. Fifty-nine security cameras are recording in the building’s eight security zones. All visitors are wearing badges. Most doors automatically shut in 30 seconds.

  • Saturday, May 31, 2008 12:00am
  • News
Laquita Crumwell

Laquita Crumwell

A King County Sheriff Department deputy sits just beyond the turnstiles, beeping because someone didn’t have a key card. Behind the deputy is a chain-link cage, guarded by a fingerprint scanner. Fifty-nine security cameras are recording in the building’s eight security zones. All visitors are wearing badges. Most doors automatically shut in 30 seconds.

The county’s elections building is a secure place. And it should be. The building, on Renton’s Southwest Grady Way, is the place where elections are managed for the state’s biggest county. The 94,000-square-foot building was designed by casino security experts, elections professionals and King County facilities officials.

The elections department moved into the renovated building in December. The grand opening was May 23.

“I never thought I’d see this day,” County Executive Ron Sims said to the crowd in the lobby for the event. It took a few years to find a new spot, and this one sits just about in the center of the county.

Sims called moving to a new building a “key milestone,” at the top of the list of the more than 300 reforms recommended in 2004 by various oversight groups after the controversial contest for governor led to intense criticism of the county’s election processes. Before the move, the elections department was housed in three buildings – two in Seattle and one in Tukwila.

Those times were challenging, elections director Sherril Huff said. Ballots had to be transported from an administrative building in Seattle to a ballot-counting and sorting facility in Tukwila. That required oversight from witnesses, employees and sheriff deputies.

Now ballots go directly to locked, chain-link cages on the second floor of the new Renton facility — a floor dedicated solely to ballot processing.

The building was designed with security and transparency in mind, Huff said. For public viewing, a windowed hall runs around the perimeter of the second floor.

“There’s nothing like it in the state,” Huff said of the building’s security. “I’d be surprised if there’s anything like it in the country.”

Ballot processing includes five steps. First, there’s sorting by legislative district. Next is signature verification. Workers compare the voters’ signatures on their ballots to those on registration forms. Voters are contacted for confirmation if the signature isn’t approved. If approved, the ballot is opened. For ballots with stray marks or marks made using pencil or a non-blue or black pen, two-person teams duplicate the person’s votes on a new ballot. The final step is tabulation, or counting.

During the grand opening, ballots from the May 20 special election were being processed. But because only three measures – one of them for a proposed merger of Fire Districts 17 and 44 in the Black Diamond area – were on the ballot, not much was going on.

Many of these ballot-processing steps will be simplified in 2009, when King County moves to an all-mail election system. The Seattle building that houses poll equipment will be closed and a regional voting center opened on the first floor of the elections building.

Workers are already testing new scanning equipment to be used when the all-mail transition occurs. The new equipment will less hands-on work, according to the elections department.

The department has 61 full-time employees, but the building is large enough to house 500 temporary employees who might be needed in a recount. The building also houses a 40-person phone bank and conference, training and multi-purpose rooms. There’s enough space to train the 500 to 700 people needed for large election seasons, like this fall’s presidential election.

Huff said the department has come a long way since 2004, achieving its goal “of being a standard-setter.”

Other election officials, she said, have “come to us, seeing what we’ve developed. We didn’t think we’d be here four years ago.”


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