A King County Sheriff’s 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 King County 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 employees.
King County Elections moved into the renovated building in December, but the grand opening was held last Friday.
“I never thought I’d see this day,” King County Executive Ron Sims said to the crowd in the lobby at Friday’s grand opening. 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.”
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 governor’s election. Three hundred and eight of those recommendations have since been implemented. Before the move, King County Elections was housed in three buildings, two in Seattle and one in Tukwila.
Those times were challenging, Elections Director Sherril Huff said at Friday’s open house. Ballots had to be transported from an administrative building in Seattle to a ballot counting and sorting facility in Tukwila. This move required oversight from witnesses, employees and sheriff’s deputies.
Now ballots go directly to locked chain-link cages on the second floor of the Renton facility — a floor dedicated solely to ballot processing.
The Renton building was designed with security and transparency in mind, Huff said. A public observation loop — 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 at King County Elections includes five steps. First there’s sorting by legislative district. Next is signature verification. A man at a computer was examining a signature Friday morning. Workers like him compare the voters’ signatures on their ballots to those on registration forms. Voters are contacted for confirmation if the signature is not approved. If approved, the ballot moves on to opening. Ballots with stray marks or marks made using pencil or a non-blue or black pen are sent to duplication, where two-person teams duplicate the person’s votes on a new ballot. The final step is tabulation, or counting.
Workers were completing these steps on ballots from the May 20 election Friday morning. But because only three measures were on the ballot, it wasn’t terribly busy.
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 at that time and a regional voting center opened on the first floor of the King County Elections Building.
Workers are already testing new scanning equipment to be used when the all-mail transition occurs. This new equipment will make work “a lot less hands-on,” an Elections employee said Friday.
King County Elections 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 multipurpose rooms. There’s enough space to train the 500 to 700 people needed for large election seasons, such as this fall’s presidential election.
Huff says King County Elections has come a long way since 2004, and Renton’s new, technologically advanced building is an example of that progress.
King County Elections has achieved its goal of being a standard setter, she said.
“We’re having others come to us … seeing what we’ve developed,” she said. “We didn’t think we’d be here four years ago.”
“Today is a doggone good day,” Sims added Friday.