Pierce County, Washington makes voting convenient with ballot drop boxes

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Pierce County, Washington is the second largest county in the state. Pierce County covers 1,679 square miles, from sea level to the top of Mt. Rainier at 14,411 ft. The county’s residents live on islands, in cities, and at the base of the mountain. The Pierce County seat is Tacoma.

A ballot drop box located at a fire station in Orting, Washington. Photo by Whitney Rhodes.

A ballot drop box located at a fire station in Orting, Washington. Photo by Whitney Rhodes.

The Pierce County Auditor’s office serves the county’s over 440,000 registered voters. The office has 13 full-time staff and approximately 250 part-time election workers who perform ballot pick-up, ballot processing, and voting center duties. They have 29, going on 30, drop boxes located throughout the county. In 2014 the Pierce County Auditor was recognized with the Election Center Guardian Award for their team’s successful ballot drop box program.

Pierce County ballot drop box best practices:

  • Design a large, fireproof box

  • Optimize voter convenience by placing boxes in common public spaces

  • Raise awareness via contests and voter education, both online and offline

  • Develop a trackable ballot pickup protocol

No stamp required

Since becoming an all vote-by-mail jurisdiction in 2011, Pierce County has seen a significant increase in the number of ballots deposited at their ballot drop boxes. In the 2014 General Election, 118,971 of the 220,827 Pierce County ballots cast, or 53.9%, were returned at a drop box. 

A voter inserts a ballot into one of Pierce County's drop off boxes. Photo by Whitney Rhodes.

A voter inserts a ballot into one of Pierce County's drop off boxes. Photo by Whitney Rhodes.

Why are ballot drop boxes so popular? Voters like convenient choices. Pierce County voters can mail their ballot, drop their ballot at a drop box, or vote in-person at one of four Voting Centers. Voters enjoy the advantages of drop boxes, which are open 24/7 and do not require a stamp. 

More than a big metal can

Discovering the best way to manage the boxes has been a learning experience. Through their experience Pierce County learned that small drop boxes, which can fill up quickly, are problematic. By investing in larger boxes, the program can continue to grow in popularity. To prevent a fire from destroying ballots inside the drop box, each box is outfitted with fire suppression canisters. Before installation, the Auditor asked a local fire department to test ballot drop boxes, with and without the fire suppression, using a variety of combustion and fire starters. The boxes were found to be very fire resistant, due to tight, heavy construction that limited air circulation. 

Pierce County's boxes feature bold quotations about democracy and voting. Photo by Whitney Rhodes.

Pierce County's boxes feature bold quotations about democracy and voting. Photo by Whitney Rhodes.

Pierce County uses graphic decals featuring quotes that inspire civic participation. They held contests at the high school closest to each drop box, and students were invited to submit their ideas. The winners saw their quote revealed, and local papers published news releases to honor the winners and to raise awareness of the drop box locations. 

Ballot drop box design features:

  • Separate walk-up and drive-up deposit points (to keep pedestrian voters out of traffic)

  • Deposit slot height suited for cars and wheelchairs. One-handed operation, for voters of all abilities

  • Slot size accommodates large envelopes, but is slim-enough to prevent tampering

  • Slanted interior design forces ballots towards doors and reduces strain for ballot drop box teams

  • Weighing 600 lbs., boxes are constructed from 1/4" and 3/8” folded steel

  • Lock body is never exposed outside the box (to protect against tampering)

  • No grip points for forced entry

  • Flush locks and doors resist impact and tampering

  • Door opens out at an angle so as to fall open if not locked, preventing unsecured boxes

  • Surface mount or cast mount legs allow custom fit to the site location

  • Drip edge protects top of door seam (to prevent ballots from getting wet when the door is opened)

  • Large side plates protect openings from rain during high winds

Location, location, location

Public facilities are ideal for ballot drop box locations. They are familiar to the public, have security and lighting, are ADA accessible, and tend to be cooperative partners. Pierce County’s sites include major transit centers, police stations, park-and-ride lots, city halls, libraries, and fire stations.

Pierce County staff use a Geographic Information System (GIS) to determine locations. They enter all current and prospective locations into the GIS and apply a “Location Allocation” geoprocessing tool. Using a road network and geocoded voter residential addresses, the tool determines the best location to serve the most voters, with a maximum voter drive time of ten minutes.

Educating the community about the location of the drop boxes is critical to ensuring their convenience. The Pierce County Auditor uses their website, local voters' pamphlet, and ballot inserts to inform voters of box locations. Their web page displays a Google map of box locations, with all map features enabled. Voters can view photographs of each box, get turn-by-turn driving directions, and see deadline reminders.

Ballot chain of custody

Pierce County drop boxes are open 19 days before each election and they remain open 24 hours a day until 8:00 p.m. on Election Day. Staff keeps a close tally of ballots deposited to track volumes and determine the frequency of pick-ups. Each box can hold 1,500 ballots, so it isn't necessary to empty each box every day. On the other hand, staff knows which boxes might need to be emptied twice a day. This reveals trends that help the team plan ballot processing workloads.

All drop box activity is performed by election workers, in teams of two. Each drop box team is assigned a route that includes five to seven boxes, with no route over four hours in duration. Each drop box team is sent with a set of supplies including seals, oaths, GPS Spot Trackers, transport tubs, contact numbers, and a checklist.

Pierce county election staff members open drop boxes as a team. Photo by Whitney Rhodes.

Pierce county election staff members open drop boxes as a team. Photo by Whitney Rhodes.

GPS Spot Trackers monitor the pickup and return of ballots at all times throughout the 18-day election period. Using satellite antennas and a global network, the unit movements are displayed on the supervisor’s computer screen. Pierce County knows at all times where the ballot drop box team is located and their direction of travel. This ensures the assigned route is followed without deviation and that the team is on time, helping document ballot chain of custody. Spot Trackers also help ensure the safety of election workers traveling to remote locations at night.

Ballot drop box costs:

  • Fabricated ballot drop box is approximately $5,000-$6,000, based on installation costs and quantity discount

  • GPS Spot Tracker unit is $150 and uses GPS satellites to track the movements, pinpoint locations, and send messages

  • FireStop canister is $50 and is effective for up to five years. The canisters are held in place by a magnet. Pierce County uses two canisters per box, placed just inside the ballot slots.

For more information about the Pierce County ballot drop box program, contact Whitney Rhodes, Assistant to the Auditor, at whitney.rhodes@co.pierce.wa.us.

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