U.S. Election Assistance Commission Identifies Pierce County, Washington, for Best Practices in Chain of Custody for Vote-by-Mail Ballots Deposited in Drop Boxes

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) recognized Pierce County, Washington, for its practices related to the chain of custody that helps track pick-up and chain of custody of vote-by-mail election ballots deposited in drop boxes.

Pierce County was an EAC “Clearie” Award winner in 2021 for outstanding innovations in elections for large jurisdictions. Having over 550,000 registered voters, Pierce County is Washington state’s second-largest jurisdiction.

In 2011, Pierce County implemented vote-by-mail, and “drop boxes are a vital element to this process,” said the EAC.

The EAC is an independent bipartisan commission charged with developing guidance to meet the Help America Vote Act of 2002, under which it was established.

The EAC said that since Pierce County’s vote-by-mail program began 10 years prior to receiving the award, the elections office has made many enhancements to drop boxes that, in addition to vote-by-mail ballot chain-of-custody improvements, makes election workers more efficient and increases access for voters.

At the time of receiving the EAC award, Pierce County had 47 drop boxes located within a two-mile radius of 95 percent of its voters.

Drop boxes are emptied of the vote-by-mail ballots at least once every 48 hours during the election period, with teams of two election employees traveling well over an hour to reach some drop boxes.

Workforce management application Field Force Manager uses smartphones and software to document drop-box ballot collections by elections workers, a system and process far advanced from many jurisdictions that implemented “Zuckerbucks”-funded ballot drop boxes under the cover of COVID-19 for the November 2020 presidential election.

In addition to setting up the collection route, the application includes checklists to ensure election workers complete all tasks and have the ability to upload time- and date-stamped pictures to document completion of each step.

The checklists and pictures can be used to confirm that boxes are opened prior to the voting period, ballots are picked up during the election period, boxes are closed on election night, ballots are properly collected after the election, and boxes are completely empty when workers conduct a quality assurance check, according to the “Clearie” Award submission by Pierce County Elections Auditor Julie Anderson.

In an example included in the submission document, checklist items include a confirmation that the seal is in place and not broken, verification of the seal number, photo evidence that the drop box door was locked and sealed, and confirmation that the ballot transport box was sealed.

Satellite antennas and a global network are used so that the elections supervisor can see ballot pick-up team movements displayed on their computer screen, enabling Pierce County elections officials to know at all times the location of the ballot drop-box collection team and their direction of travel.

These measures help document the ballot chain of custody by ensuring the assigned route is followed without deviation, and that the team is on schedule, according to the Pierce County document.

Once the ballots arrive at Pierce County’s ballot processing center, they are placed by drop box and voter on a mail sorter.

The ballot data is then uploaded to the election management system, allowing tracking of the ballot drop-off location by voter and drop box.

The ballot drop-box data allows tracking of the number of ballots being returned down to the drop-box level.

A picture included by Pierce County in the award submission document captures a date- and time-stamped, bar-coded ticket that records receipt of the ballots as well as the election the ballots pertain to, the number of ballots received, and the first and last serialized ballot number in that batch.

The bar-coded ticket is then attached to a document that includes details pertaining to the seal, including the number, when it was placed and broken, and by whom.

Pierce County also made improvements to the collection of vote-by-mail ballots deposited into drop boxes upstream of the transport to the elections office.

Ballots originally accumulated on the floor of the drop box and were scooped into transport containers, a process which was not only time-consuming but “looked chaotic and sloppy.”


Pierce County Chief Deputy Auditor Cindy Hartman said that “in one day, we can pull as many as 5,000 ballots out of one single drop box, and we have boxes across the county.”

Additionally, the drop boxes are available throughout the entire 18-day voting period, according to Townsend, so that voters don’t have to use the post office. Drop boxes are promoted as having the added benefit of guaranteed delivery if a ballot is deposited by 8 p.m. on Election Day, so that their usage is increased as Election Day approaches.

After trying tubs and bags in the drop boxes, Pierce County worked with the Mechanical Engineering Program of Bates Technical College to devise a better way to get the ballots from inside the drop boxes, said Damon Townsend, Pierce County Elections Supervisor in a YouTube video.

Custom-designed boxes that fit the unique shape of the drop box and include a fitted cover not only keep the ballots protected, but minimize handling of the ballots by eliminating the transfer of ballots from the drop box to a container located outside the drop box.


In Pierce County, the use of ballot drop boxes is so prevalent that it equated to 355,509, or 75 percent of vote-by-mail ballots, in the 2020 general election and 111,594, or 62 percent of ballots, in the 2021 general election.

While the widespread use of drop boxes in Pierce County, located in an exclusively vote-by-mail state, amplifies the need for accuracy and ease in the process for voters and elections workers, it also raises the bar for states that codify the use of drop boxes to implement best practices like Pierce County, Washington, does to minimize voter fraud.

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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter for The Star News Network.


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