Okay, before you read any further, just chill. If you haven't yet mailed in your ballot, do so now, or deposit it in one of the 15 drop boxes located throughout King County, by 8 p.m. tomorrow. You have until tomorrow to mail your ballot, but remember, it must be postmarked by election day, so you are best off taking it to a post office.

And if you've lost your ballot or never received it, that's okay too. You can actually print a new ballot online, or if that seems weird, you can vote in person today or tomorrow at one of the county's 5 accessible voting centers. And if they give you any guff, just ask for a provisional ballot—that's your right.

This isn't Florida. Our election officials actually want you to vote.

But how do you know if your ballot has been counted? That's easy too. Just click through to the King County Ballot Tracker and type in your name and birth date. What... your ballot's not been received? When did you mail it? If it's been more than 4 days, you might want to give KC Elections a call (206-296-VOTE ) or try one of the options listed above. If it's still awaiting signature verification, don't worry. I'm going to explain the entire process below.

  • The first stop for your ballot is one of two high-speed sorters that sort the unopened envelopes by precinct.

The first stop on your ballot's journey from the drop box or the USPS truck to reelecting our nation's first half-white president is KC Elections' two Pitney-Bowes high-speed sorting machines. Batches of 200 to 400 envelopes are scanned for voter data and signatures, and sorted by precinct. When the Ballot Tracker reports that your ballot has been "received," it means it's been scanned by one of these two sorting machines. Next step: Signature verification.

About a quarter the King County Elections center 2nd floor processing center is devoted to signature verification.
  • Goldy | The Stranger
  • About a quarter the King County Elections center 2nd floor processing center is devoted to signature verification.

Once sorted, your ballot is brought to Signature Verification. Trained specialists sit at banks of computer monitors, where they compare the signature on your outer envelope to your signature on file, looking for similarities in height and spacing and slant. If the signature matches, your ballot envelope moves on to Opening—if your signature does not match or is missing, your ballot is flagged for further review. In the photo above, work stations in the back and along the window are those of the first-pass signature verifiers; the workstations in the front are those of more highly trained staff who review flagged envelopes. Some are verified upon further review, the rest are flagged as "challenged."

About 2 percent of received envelopes end up being flagged as challenged, the majority due to missing signatures. If your ballot is challenged you should be notified both by mail and phone; call them back! You have until November 26, the day before certification, to "cure" your ballot. About half of challenged ballots are eventually cured, but that still leaves thousands of ballots uncounted, more than enough to sway the outcome of a very close race.

After your signature is verified, your ballot heads to Opening, where it is separated from its envelope and reviewed for obvious problems.
  • Goldy | The Stranger
  • After your signature is verified, your ballot heads to Opening, where it is separated from its envelope and reviewed for obvious problems.

Opening your ballot envelope is actually a three-step process. 1) Your security envelope is separated from its outer mailing envelope. Once all the envelopes have been emptied and set aside, 2) your ballot is removed from its security envelope. Then 3) workers inspect the ballot for stray marks, the wrong color pen, or physical damage that may prevent it from being read by the optical scanners.

Ballot reviewers work in teams of two to determine voter intent of damaged ballots.
  • Goldy | The Stranger
  • Ballot reviewers work in teams of two to determine voter intent of damaged ballots.

Most ballots move immediately on to scanning, but those that are deemed damaged move on to Ballot Review, where teams of two attempt to determine the voter's intent (according to strict guidelines) and then electronically or physically duplicate the ballot if necessary. If voter intent cannot be determined, or the adjudicators disagree on intent, your ballot will be forwarded to the Canvassing Board for final determination. (The canvassing board is a three-person panel composed of representatives from the county council, the county prosecutor's office, and the elections office. All their proceedings and deliberations are open to the public.)

If the Ballot Tracker reports that your ballot has been counted, that means its been scanned on one of these machines.
  • Goldy | The Stranger
  • If the Ballot Tracker reports that your ballot has been "counted," that means it's been scanned on one of these machines.

Once your ballot makes it through Opening (or Ballot Review) it is sent on to Scanning, where batches of ballots are processed on one of several high speed scanners. Ballots that fail to scan are kicked out and sent back to Ballot Review. If the Ballot Tracker reports that your ballot has been "counted," it means it has been successfully scanned.

Only a handful of KC Elections employees have access to the server room where the data is stored and tabulated.
  • Goldy | The Stranger
  • Only a handful of KC Elections employees have access to the server room where the data is stored and tabulated.

Scanning occurs throughout the election processing period, with data stored on a server in a secure room next door. But it is not until 8 p.m. on election night that this data is tabulated and the results reported.

So, how can I be certain that this process is legit and that my ballot is secure? Again, this is not Florida. Or Ohio. But in addition to the general lack of political corruption in Washington State, there are also a ton of safeguards in place. Access to the ballot processing center is restricted (I was escorted by communications specialist Barbara Ramey, who took away my black pen and made me take notes with a non-scannable red one), authorized observers are roaming the floor at all times, and when not being processed, all ballots are stored in a floor to ceiling cage.

Ballots are stored in a floor-to-ceiling cage.
  • Goldy | The Stranger
  • Ballots are stored in a floor-to-ceiling cage.

Yeah sure, we rely on ballot scanning and tabulation equipment made by evil corporations. But any attempt to tamper with the results would be revealed by the routine audits conducted after the election, in which a random sample of precincts are counted by hand, and compared to the official machine results. Indeed, a statewide hand recount of over 3 million ballots in the 2004 gubernatorial election found a statistically insignificant variance between the hand and machine recounts.

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Also, there's always the possibility of a recount, which would surely reveal any tabulation fraud. It just couldn't happen without a broad bipartisan conspiracy, and even then it would be awfully difficult to execute.

Finally, all ballots are stored for a number of years, offering a reviewable paper trail. One of the many advantages of our vote-by-mail system. Even the electronic accessible voting machines produce voter-reviewable paper receipt.

So there you have it: The life of your ballot from dropbox to tabulation. If you've got any questions, please ask them in the comment thread.