Thurston County Has a Plan if a Disaster Interrupts an Election

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The Thurston County Auditor’s Office plans to relocate its ballot processing operations to other counties if a disaster forces them to leave behind their current Tumwater site.

“It’s like an insurance policy and you hope you never ever have to use it,” Hall said. “But in elections, you always have to be prepared for anything. I mean who would have thought we would have had a pandemic?”

To that end, Auditor Mary Hall told The Olympian her office already has entered into memorandum of understanding agreements with the auditors of Jefferson, Whitman and Adams counties.

However, the county is in the process of formalizing interlocal agreements with those three counties.

The Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved the first of the interlocal agreements with Jefferson County last Tuesday. The agreement allows the Jefferson County Auditor to use Thurston County’s ballot processing center, but not the other way around.

Hall said the other end of the agreement with Jefferson County, which would formally allow her to use Jefferson’s facility, is still being fine-tuned by each county’s lawyers.

The Auditor’s Office chose those three counties because they all have the same tabulation systems as Thurston County, said elections supervisor Tillie Naputi-Pullar on Tuesday.

Hall said she first got the idea to enter into such agreements after a Department of Homeland Security assessment about three years. She said work on them stalled in 2020 as she dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic.

She called the agreements an extension of her continuity of operations plans (COOP). Her office has one for each division to meet “What if” scenarios, she said.

“COVID was a classic example,” Hall said. “We implemented our COOP and we’re still in our COOP, sort of… So, for elections, it was very easy for us to pivot. We just started throwing ideas out there and came up with what we did with drive-through, which was wildly successful.”

The need for COOP plans has been apparent since Hurricane Sandy affected New Jersey’s election operations in 2012, Hall said.

“The election community has been very aware that we need contingency plans because elections can’t be postponed because of an act of God,” Hall said. “If there was a big earthquake here, we would probably go to Whitman or Adams, but we would still have to conduct our election.”

During Tuesday’s board meeting, Commissioner Gary Edwards raised concerns about electronically moving ballot processing operations, but Hall assured him such a move would be done physically.

In the event Thurston County did have to move its ballot processing operations, Hall said her office would first ask the Post Office to redirect ballots.

“It depends on what type of disaster happened that would cause us to move over there, but you know we would be in close contact with the post office, which we have a great relationship with,” Hall said.

From there, she would load ballots, people and as much equipment as they could on transport vehicles. Though the county has a few large vans, she said she would likely have to rent a box truck to make such a move.

“If we couldn’t get to our equipment, our vendor would, I’m sure, get a machine there that we would just lease,” Hall said. “We have these conversations with them also. Our vendors are very good.”