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How the rare mail-in ballot mistake can happen — and what you should do

Washington state ballot drop box. (KIRO Radio/Feliks Banel)

A Seattle resident in the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship was shocked when he opened his mailbox to find a primary ballot.

“That kind of surprised me because I know I’m not a U.S. citizen yet, … I also feel that this is so wrong,” said the resident, who wished to remain unnamed.

He said that he didn’t vote with the ballot, but he is worried other people who are ineligible to cast a vote could have received the means to do so.

Assistant Secretary of State Mark Neary said this kind of error has occurred before, but not very often.

“It happens very rarely, but the cases that I have personally been aware of, it came through the Department of Licensing,” he said.

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He explained that at the Department of Licensing, people will be asked if they want to register to vote. It is through these vocal questions and answers that a misunderstanding could potentially, in rare cases, happen.

“To become a registered voter, you just have to attest to four criteria — that you are a citizen of the United States, a legal resident of Washington state, 18 years or older by Election Day, and not under the supervision of the Department of Corrections,” Neary explained.

Neary said the Secretary of State’s Office and the DOL are working on putting in safeguards to prevent misunderstandings over voter registration. There are currently translations and interpreters available to help with language barriers.

They are also working on getting DOL offices equipped with touch screens that Neary described as “like a signature pad, so the individual can actually read it and select” answers, instead of having to rely on audible questions and responses.

People are automatically registered to vote when getting an Enhanced Driver’s License, but getting that particular piece of ID, as it allows a person to travel internationally, requires proof of citizenship.

Neary said it is also possible a deceased person could get a ballot in the mail if they’ve passed away in between when ballots were sent out and election day.

If you get a ballot by mistake, or a ballot arrives for a deceased relative, do not under any circumstance vote. Notify your county auditor’s office that a mistake has been made.

If you try to forge a relative’s signature, Neary said you are very likely to be caught by the highly-trained signature verification teams in county offices.

“They’re able to identify specific factors or unique flow of a pen associated with a signature. … We have that system down, and so I’m not concerned at all about mass fraud,” he said.

Intentionally voting when ineligible or in place of someone else is a Class C felony that could get you up to 5 years in jail and up to a $10,000 fine. Additionally, Neary said if you are not a citizen, this would likely prevent you from ever becoming one.

All in all, however, ballot mistakes and voting fraud — whether intentional or by error —  are not big problems in Washington state. Out of 3 million ballots in the 2018 election, only about 150 were found to be potentially fraudulent.

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