By Pat Jenkins

The Dispatch

Ovals are replacing arrows as Pierce County moves into the digital age of counting votes in elections.

According to county election officials, voting results will come faster and with more assurance of being accurate following a year-long selection process that ended with the county purchasing the Clear Ballot system for $790,400. The price tag includes equipment, software, licensing and installation.

Auditor Julie Anderson, who heads Pierce County elections, said the county’s first major investment in a new vote-tabulation system in more than 20 years is paid for with funds set aside by the auditor’s office over the past five years. The County Council authorized the purchase.

The new system will make its debut next summer in the primary election, which will end Aug. 1.

The general public can get a preview during an open house March 30 at the elections center in Tacoma. From 5 to 7 p.m., presentations will include hands-on demonstrations of the system in action.

Officials point to three components of Clear Ballot as reasons it will make Pierce County’s elections better from a vote-casting and counting perspective:

• Digital scanning and tabulation of ballots will leave behind outdated and inefficient optical scanning methods. The new, more modern scanners are expected to reduce the number of unreadable ballots that in past elections required manual duplication, which slowed down the reporting of results reporting and added to the overall cost of elections. In the 2016 general election last November alone, more than 50,000 ballots required the manual handling, officials noted. The new digital system also is expected to bolster the ballot auditing process.

• Anderson noted voters will no longer “connect the arrow” (draw a dark, bold line) on their ballots to indicate their preferences. Instead, voters will fill in an oval beside their candidate’s name, which election officials say is more familiar to the general population, easier to mark, and is similar to how students take tests in public schools. Voting will continue to be by mail for nearly all of the county’s 400,000-plus registered voters.

• The new system includes a modern, accessible ballot-marking device that voters with disabilities, such as impaired vision, who need assistance can use at the county’s voting centers. Each voter will be able to mark their ballot digitally, review it and then print a two-sided, full-face ballot for tabulation at the elections center in Tacoma.

Anderson said the improved “transparency” in vote-counting will add another layer of confidence in Pierce County’s elections.

“To say that we’re excited is an understatement,” she said. “While very little will change for voters – we’re still voting by mail – the differences in the central count process will be significantly more efficient and will provide world-class audit accountability.”

Jordan Esten, Clear Ballot’s chief operating officer, said Pierce is the first county in Washington to adopt the company’s election technology.

Clear Ballot is based in Boston, Mass. and was founded in 2009. The company’s technology is certified for use in three states -- Washington, Oregon and New York. It’s also used for election audits in Vermont, Florida and Maryland.

Clear Ballot and Maryland conducted the nation’s first fully automated, independent statewide audit for last year’s presidential election.

In 2013, Florida became the first state to give counties the option of conducting post-election audits. ClearAudit became the first automated system authorized by the state and is used by seven of Florida’s counties.

Esten said his company’s representatives hope to demonstrate Clear Ballot’s “transparency and accessibility” to as many Pierce County voters as possible during the open house later this month.

In addition to that unveiling for the general public, the system will be demonstrated on March 29 for the news media and officials of political parties.

One election in Pierce County since 1988 was conducted with ballots that had a box for voters to fill in for their candidate choices. “Otherwise, we've been using lever machines or connect the arrow since 1988,” Anderson said.