Undeliverable Ballots

Undeliverable Ballots from the 2023 General Election

Washington’s vote by mail process includes the counties sending a ballot to every active registered voter on the list.  This makes an accurate list extremely important.  There are several reasons why a ballot may be undeliverable.  It’s common for the post office to return ballots as “undeliverable as addressed.”

When that happens, RCW 29A.08.620 requires that the county mark the voter inactive and send them a notice informing them that they have done so.

“ (4) The county auditor shall place a voter on inactive status and send to all known addresses a confirmation notice if any of the following occur:

(a) Any document mailed by the county auditor to a voter is returned by the postal service as undeliverable without address correction information;”

This makes sense.  There is no reason to continue sending ballots to addresses which are undeliverable.  Voters who are inactive are not sent ballots.  However, if a voter requests a ballot at that point, they become active again, but this is an issue for another day.

Checking Their Work

We wanted to follow up and make sure the counties were doing what they were supposed to when a person’s ballot was returned as undeliverable. We requested some records from the Washington Secretary of State of all ballots issued and received.  This is different than the ballot status report, as that only shows ballots that were returned back to the county as voted, not ballots that were sent out or returned as undeliverable.  

We found that there were only a handful of counties with any voters that had a ballot with an undeliverable status.  A couple counties of interest were missing from the list and there were only 10,894 people with this ballot status.

We sent another request asking specifically for the undeliverable ballots in the state. A while later, we received a list of people who had a ballot with an undeliverable status. There were still only a handful of counties on the list. In fact, it was about the same number as before.

Were They Marked Inactive?

While this was all going on, we were checking the voters for the ones that were on the list.  Most of the voters who were on the list of undeliverable ballots had been marked inactive, with the exception of roughly 10-15 percent.   

Of those, we checked to see if they had an updated address in the current version of the voter rolls. Some had changes to their registered address or mailing address. The ones that did not appear to have any updates were flagged and added to a list.    We sent the list to the county elections office, asking why they were not marked inactive and have the same undeliverable address as their ballot.

Their Response

Pierce county responded with, I wanted to circle back and express our thanks for the list you provided. Upon closer examination, we identified that 351 voters needed to be marked as inactive. The others had made updates or transferred to another county.

In our initial attempt to inactivate these voters when we uploaded information about their undeliverable ballots, the process was paused as they had already been placed in the NCOA queue. Subsequently, we have successfully processed the NCOA queue, resulting in the inactivation of these records.

We’ve promptly informed the OSOS about this, and they have committed to collaborating with us to identify and address similar cases in the future.”

Kittitas County replied, “We have inquired with OSOS office about the ballots that were returned as undeliverable but did not go on inactive as they should have, and they are looking into it.  I will make a note to follow up with them, on the root cause and solutions if I don’t hear back soon.

I really appreciate you taking the time to reach out to us with this list. Accuracy of our ‘voter rolls’ is a top priority and a continuous process. You helped make us a little better by sharing this information. Please feel free to reach out anytime with any additional information or questions. Thanks”

Yakima county said, When processing inactives due to undeliverable ballots, the state system uses a logic that keeps certain records active if an update occurred after the ballot’s mailing date…

…Finally, I discovered records within your list that remained active due to a state update file that would not affect any mailings. I have gone ahead and made those records inactive.”


After reading these responses, we came to the conclusion that there is a flaw in the way this is done. Something is causing some of the voters to remain active, when they should be inactive. Then we got this response from Kitsap County.

“Thank you for reaching out to our office with your question.  The action of assigning an “Undeliverable” status to a voter’s ballot automatically inactivates their voter registration in our database.  Inactivation automatically generates a confirmation notice to be mailed to any existing address on the voter’s record.  This notice includes a postage prepaid, preaddressed form asking the voter to confirm or update their address (and gives them an option to cancel their registration if they’ve moved out of state).  The voters listed on your spreadsheet reactivated their records either by returning that confirmation notice, calling our office, or using VoteWA.gov to confirm their addresses electronically.”

 So, if that is the case, and the system does all this automatically after marking a ballot as undeliverable, the system must be skipping some voters that should be marked inactive, as several remain active that show an undeliverable ballot status.

King County

What about the counties that weren’t on the list of people  who had undeliverable ballots?  We finally heard back from King County.  They provided a list of ballot ID’s which were undeliverable with no forwarding address.  There were about 12,000+ ballot ID’s on the list.

We used that and compared it to the ballots issued and received report to match it to the voter.  We then searched the current version of the voter rolls to see if they were inactive.  What we discovered was disturbing.  All of those voters were still active. This was almost 3 months after the election, and  more than 3 months since the ballots were sent out and returned undeliverable.

Ballots were already sent to UOCAVA voters for the next election, the presidential primary.  King County apparently had not processed any of these records.  Here is their response.

“Thank you for your email and I appreciate your dedication to ensuring accurate voter rolls in Washington State and for your patience while I looked into the matter.   

The undeliverable ballot mailings from November have been inactivated since Secretary of State data file was provided to you. We aim to get these done in a timely manner after each election and did not do as quickly as is standard following the November General Election. 

We’ve since put in place some additional detail in procedures to ensure that it gets done quickly after each election, so we can get those voters notified and inactivated in a timely manner.

You can request an updated data file from the Secretary of State.  An updated data file from the Secretary of State would reflect the changes that were made. Don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any other questions on this. “

Meaning they had now processed them.  We asked what additional detail was added to the procedures to ensure that it gets done quickly, and they responded by saying they will process these within a week of election certification going forward. 

We checked again, and most had then been inactivated, except for about 1700.    

Moral of the Story

Two lessons here. First, the system is flawed.  Second, the counties aren’t taking their responsibility seriously.  The law says these people should be marked inactive and sent a notice.  Not that they can wait until ballots are sent for another election and send them ballots again if they haven’t got around to marking them inactive.

Now the presidential primary is over, and we will check again. 

Other counties that  hadn’t processed their undeliverable ballots are Thurston, Spokane, and several others.  We are hoping for better results going forward.  Maybe now that they know someone is paying attention, they will take it more seriously.

We encourage you to check this in your own county. Doing this statewide takes time and we could use your help! Feel free to reach out with any questions and we will try to assist the best we can.  

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