OLYMPIA — In the 2020 general election, Washington counties were more likely to reject ballots by younger voters, men and people of color, compared to other racial and demographic groups, according to a review by the state auditor's office.
The analysis — which was requested by state lawmakers — also shows that where a person lives was the most significant factor to whether their election ballot was rejected.
Released Tuesday, the audit comes amid a yearslong discussion in Olympia about access to voting, and more recently, questions by conservatives over election processes and results.
While fewer than 1% of ballots cast in the 2020 general election were rejected, according to the audit, there was a broad difference among Washington's 39 counties.
The audit used a mix of hard data and statistical modeling, according to the auditor's office. For example, election data is available on voters' residence, age and gender.
For determining race and ethnicity, auditors used a predictive algorithm developed by the RAND Corporation that's been around for about 15 years, according to Scott Frank, director of performance and IT audit for the office. That modeling combines information like census tracts — which have demographic information available — and other information like surnames, which have a probability of being associated with different racial and ethnic groups, he said.
"And when you combine those two pieces of information, you can make a pretty good prediction" across big sets of data, Frank said.
According to the audit, "After accounting for demographic factors like age, race, education levels and income, we estimated that ballots submitted to some counties were four to seven times more likely to be rejected than ballots submitted to other counties."
For instance, Franklin County had the highest rate of rejected ballots, at 1.5% of those cast, according to the audit. Snohomish County rejected .99% of ballots cast and King County rejected .86%.
Further down the list, Pierce County rejected .63% of ballots cast, Spokane County rejected .46% and San Juan County rejected .25%, according to the audit. Columbia County had the lowest rejection rate, at .04% of ballots cast.
"There were some disparities between the counties, and that's a concern," Auditor Pat McCarthy said in an interview. "Who you are and where you live should never matter."
"If this data was available to me ... I would want to know that," added McCarthy, who earlier in her career served as Pierce County auditor.
The audit made a host of recommendations. It called for more voter outreach and education to explain signature requirements, and the resolution process for voters.
There are three main reasons a voter's ballot might be rejected, according to the audit. The first is that a ballot arrived after the deadline, which the review didn't examine.
The audit instead focused on the two other main reasons for rejection: when a voter's signature can't be verified with the one on file, or a signature is missing from the ballot envelope.
Those two factors are important because Washington's voting period generally allows time for elections officials to reach out to voters and clear up those issues if there was a mistake.
The reasons why local elections officials are rejecting ballots at different rates — and rejecting ballots by different racial and demographic groups — are less clear.
The audit found "few discernible patterns that helped explain differences in rejection rates" and no evidence of bias in the acceptance or rejection of ballots. In a review of 7,200 ballots cast with software that analyses voter signatures, the audit concluded "that 98.7% of county decisions were appropriate."
Instead, the report and county auditors suggested language barriers for some residents, a lack of familiarity among younger voters with Washington's vote-by-mail process, and the changing of people's signatures over time could contribute to rejected ballots.
Still, the audit showed differences in rejection rates between different racial and demographic groups.
Statistical modeling of the rejected ballots concluded that while voters younger than 26 account for only 10% of Washington's voting population, they made up more than 30% of rejected ballots.
Meanwhile, modeling showed that white voters had the lowest rejection rate among ethnic and racial groups.
And "Even when controlling for other variables, we estimated Black voters were twice as
likely to have ballots rejected than white voters," according to the audit.
Non-English speakers were also more likely to have their ballots rejected. A separate analysis of King County estimated that voters casting ballots that were not in English had a nearly 50% percent greater likelihood of having their ballot rejected.
In an interview, King County Elections Director Julie Wise said she appreciated the review.
"I'm not surprised, because the disparities among demographic groups are not surprising," Wise said.
The county is working to remove barriers to voting, Wise said, which includes voter outreach and finding ways to make sure the signature-verification process is working.
For example, King County last year expanded its implicit bias training for all staff members tasked with verifying signatures, she said.
Officials in Franklin County haven't yet reviewed the entire report, County Auditor Matt Beaton wrote in an email. But Beaton pointed to state data showing that ballot rejections rates within counties can fluctuate over the years.
For example, Franklin County's ballot rejection rate was as low as .64% in 2015 and as high as 2.37% in 2019, according to that data.
Mason County Auditor Paddy McGuire — whose county was on the lower end of rejections, with a .44% rate — also welcomed the report's findings.
"We were certainly pleased that they could not find any evidence of bias, because that has been found elsewhere" in other states, McGuire said.
People's signatures can change over time, and McGuire also pointed to the fact that young people living in a hyper-digital world might not be used to using a signature.
"And that's something we auditors have been talking about for the last couple years, is an alternative to ink-on-paper signatures, primarily aimed at young voters," he said, adding later: "Not a replacement for signatures, but an alternative to signatures."
Rejecting ballots in some instances also show Washington's rigorous process of matching and rejecting signatures, which involves multiple elections workers.
McGuire referred two cases of signature mismatches to law enforcement in the 2020 election.
In one case, they contacted a voter about a mismatched signature, and the voter responded that she hadn't voted, he said.
"And she came and talked to us, and she said, 'I believe my roommate stole my ballot,'" McGuire said. "In that case, that was a signature mismatch being a win for us, right? The rate should never be zero."