How to vote in Washington: Everything you need to know for 2020

We've added answers to more reader questions, from security envelopes to drop boxes to tracking your ballot.

ballots being processed

Ballots are processed at the King County Elections headquarters in Renton for Washington state’s presidential primary election on March 10, 2020. Though gloves have always been optional for elections workers, it has become mandatory to prevent COVID-19. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Whether you’re new to Washington state or just making sure you are fully prepared to vote in the Nov. 3 general election, here’s what you need to know about voting (plus lots of links for voters who live outside the state or have recently moved).

How to register

Washington voters can register up to the day of the election, but why wait? You can register online or through the mail by Oct. 26. Registration forms are available in many languages, from Amharic to Vietnamese. To register online, you’ll need a current Washington state driver’s license or permit, or a state identification card. If you do not have one of those cards, you can still register by mail or in person. The state will even help you find your county elections office, which is where you will likely need to go to register and vote in person between Oct. 26 and Election Day on Nov. 3.

If you don’t live in Washington, the U.S. government has a helpful site full of information to help you register in other states. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 40 states allow online voter registration and Oklahoma is in the process of setting up that system.

How to get your ballot

If you are registered to vote in Washington state and your address hasn’t changed, your ballot will be mailed to you about two weeks before the election, around Oct. 16. To make sure your registration is up to date with your current address, check in here. If you did not receive a ballot, lost it or just made a mistake while filling it out, you can print a new one at your county elections office website. If you need a voter’s pamphlet, you can look at the guide at the same place where you check the status of your ballot. 

In Washington, you do not need to request an absentee ballot, but other states have a variety of rules. This site will help you figure out how to sign up for an absentee ballot if you do not live in the state.

Vote 2020 logo

How to move your registration

According to the federal government, if you move permanently to another state, you just need to register to vote in your new state. If your parents or your ex gets a ballot addressed to you at your previous residence, they should just toss it in the recycling. If someone other than you fills out that ballot and submits it in Washington state, the incorrect signature should give them away and the ballot will likely be rejected. Moving away? You can cancel your voter registration in Washington by filling out this form.

How to vote from somewhere else

added Sept. 11, 2020, at 5 p.m.

If you are going to be in another state or another country when Washington ballots are mailed in mid-October and you won't be returning until after the election, you have several options. If you are going to be staying with a friend or family member in another state, change your mailing address in to your temporary address. Make sure you do this before Oct. 16. While you are away, you can also print a "replacement" ballot from the same website and mail it by following the directions on that document.

The instructions for military members and overseas voters are slightly more complicated. Military members and their spouses can vote by mail, by fax or by email.

What if you're moving to Washington this fall?

added Sept. 11, 2020, at 5 p.m.

Washington enacted same-day voter registration in 2019, so even if you move to the state in early October, you can probably vote in the general election. But you need to be a resident for longer than one day to vote. Washington requires you to establish your residency address at least 30 days before Election Day. Twenty-one states, plus the District of Columbia, offer some kind of same-day registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Can you register without a driver's license?

added Sept. 11, 2020, at 5 p.m.

To register to vote online in Washington state, you will need a driver's license or a state ID. These may be more difficult to obtain right now because of office closures due to COVID-19. You can register to vote by mail without a driver's license by supplying part of your Social Security number on the form.

How and when to turn in your ballot

Every county has drop boxes where you can turn in your ballot. The Secretary of State’s Office keeps this list of where the boxes are located. You can drop your ballot in one of these boxes until 8 p.m. Election Day. Your ballot can also be mailed, without a stamp, and will be considered valid if it’s postmarked by Election Day.

Can you drop your ballot in another county?

If you live in one county but work or are temporarily staying in another, you may be wondering what to do with your ballot if you can’t get back to a drop box in your home county. Counties do their best to forward misplaced ballots to the correct county, but to ensure your ballot is counted, it’s probably a better idea to put your ballot in the mail than to drop it in the drop box of the wrong county. Find information below on how to track your ballot.

Can you drop off someone else's ballot?

added Oct. 19, 2020, at noon

Once you have filled out your ballot and sealed it in the envelope, anyone can put it in the drop box or a mail box for you. But in answer to a question from a reader, you may not actually fill out the ballot for someone else and sign their name on the back of the envelope, even if you feel confident you know how they wanted to vote. If your relative died before the ballot arrived, throw it away unless you want to take a chance on getting arrested. Also, the reason we sign the outside of the ballot is so that election officials can compare the signature with our voter registration documents.

What about some more technical ballot questions?

added Oct. 19, 2020, at noon

Readers sent in technical questions about filling out their ballots. We're going to answer them here, in case anyone has the same questions.

Is the inner security envelopes truly optional? Yes, it is. Don't worry if you forgot to put your ballot into the security envelope before sealing the main envelope. These are designed to help keep your votes secret during the ballot opening process. Your ballot will still be counted even if the security envelope is missing.

What happens if before you fill our your ballot, you get it mixed up with someone else's? All the ballots are the same, within your geographic area. They are not barcoded or tracked in some other way. The envelopes, however, are assigned to the voters and they are carefully tracked. Make sure you use the correct envelope and sign it, or your ballot will not be counted.

Where are the other things I was expecting to vote on, one reader asked. Hopefully by now, they have turned over their ballot and seen a bunch of other races and issues to vote on. If your ballot is printed only on one side, that's a problem and you should contact your county elections office. Contact us, too. That might be an interesting story.

The Washington Secretary of State's Office also answers more technical questions about vote by mail on its site.

Can you vote on Election Day in person?

Yes, you can vote and drop off your ballot in person. And in Washington, you can even register to vote on the day of the election and then fill out a ballot at the same time. Even though Washington is considered a vote-by-mail state, in-person voting has always been available for people with disabilities who need to use a machine to help them vote. Voting centers will be open across the state for people who want to drop off their ballot, but as elections officials in King County are quick to add, for safety reasons and to avoid becoming overwhelmed, they really would prefer you fill out your ballot and put it in a drop box instead. In King County, voting centers will offer a drive-up service for people dropping off ballots. They are still finalizing the locations, but it appears they will include the CenturyLink Field Event Center. Check with your own county closer to the Nov. 3 election to find out where you can drop off your ballot or vote with a machine.

How can you track your ballot?

added Oct. 19, 2020, at noon

If you live in King County, you can track your ballot here. You can also track through the statewide elections portal. If you live in another county, go to your county elections site for more information. Here's a list of county elections offices.

This is a good way to make sure your ballot is received and passes the signature check. If you forgot to put a contact number or email on your ballot, you can still update your signature if you see that it didn't pass the signature check. Those who don't remember how they signed their name on their voter registration and whether your signature included their middle name, should carefully track their ballot for peace of mind.

The folks at the King County Elections Office have set up a ballot security cam, in case you would like to watch them open ballots or are curious about the process.

How do I report a full ballot drop box?

added Oct. 19, 2020, at noon

If you try to drop off your ballot and find the drop box full, you should contact your county elections office. In King County, call 206-296-VOTE. The King County Elections Office says it also watches social media for reports about full drop boxes. If you live in another county, go to your county elections site for more information. Here's a list of county elections offices.

Why it takes so long to count the votes

While counting votes has always included counting the ballots that are cast on Election Day, Washington’s old system, in which you filled out your ballot and then slid it into the vote-counting machine yourself, was more automated. Those machines transmitted the results to a central computer and allowed for much faster vote counting. Our vote-by-mail system is more complicated. Your ballot travels by mail or by truck from a drop box to the vote-counting center in the county you submitted it. If you vote on Election Day, your ballot will be among many getting signature checked by hand by a human and then it is fed into the counting machine. Washington allows voting up to 8 p.m. Election Day. While earlier ballots can be processed as they come in, the flood of ballots that usually arrive on Election Day slows down the system. People in Washington are used to closer races taking days or even weeks to decide. Since many states will employ some version of vote-by-mail this fall, the rest of the country may need to learn more patience this November.

What is done to keep your ballot safe

Washington, which has been conducting all its elections by mail for a decade, has a system for keeping ballots safe and secure. The more than 450 ballot drop boxes statewide and ballot collection transportation are both secured through a variety of tracking systems. Once ballots arrive in vote-counting centers, the security measures continue. Vote-by-mail is not a simple process.

How to make sure your vote is counted

In Washington, you can track your ballot on the same site where you can check your registration and look at the voters’ pamphlet. This site will tell you when your ballot was mailed to you, when you returned it and whether it was accepted, which means your vote was counted. When you sign your ballot envelope, make sure you provide a phone number or email address because election officials in your county will actually contact you if they have a question after comparing your signature with past ones they have on file. This signature check is the key to election security and election officials take this seriously. Many people who have been voting in Washington for a long time will likely have their signature questioned at some point, probably because, like me, they have made a change at some point. Once you confirm that your ballot belongs to you, your ballot will be counted. This is also how they can catch people trying to turn in someone else’s ballot.

How to look at results like a journalist

For statewide offices and legislative races that cross county lines, the best place to look for election results is on the secretary of state’s election results page. Until the votes are counted, this site is also a good place to see the online voter guide. A hint: The voter turnout tab will tell you how many votes have been counted so far and how many are left to be counted. This might give you a clue about whether these results are likely to hold as more votes are counted or aren’t enough to show a clear picture yet. This is also the page that will tell you the next time the vote count will be updated. If you want to up your prognosticating game: On the results pages, click on the county results map and see how different candidates are doing across the state and then compare that information with the page showing how many votes are still to be counted.

What if you have more technical questions

Send us a question through the form below and we’ll do the research for you or send you a link or a phone number to connect you to the right person.

Crosscut is working to get you the information you need to cast your ballot this November. If you have questions about Washington state candidates and issues, submit them here. If you’re wondering about the process of voting, you can direct those questions here.

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