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You know that tab you tear off your ballot? Here’s why it exists

The King County ballot has a stub at the top you must tear off.
KUOW Photo/Jim Gates
The King County ballot has a stub at the top you must tear off.

Voting is hard. Your ballot is packed with decisions – some tougher than others. You have to parse the wonk, find the right-colored pen and sweat over whether you actually need a postage stamp.

For King and Snohomish county voters, there’s one more step: You’re asked to tear a stub off the top of your ballot before placing it in the security envelope. Or else … what?

That’s the question two listeners asked KUOW’s Local Wonder.

“Why do I have to remove a stub of paper from my ballot each time we have an election?” asked a listener named K. “Why don't they just not put it on there?”

It’s a good question — the kind you didn’t know you had until someone brings it up.

“It’s actually probably the most frequent question we get on tours of the election facility,” said Kendall Hodson, chief of staff for King County Elections.

Hodson said the tab contains a barcode used during distribution to make sure you get a ballot with the correct ballot measures, races, inserts and envelopes.

“It’s essentially for tracking everything before ballots are mailed,” she said.

The barcode contains information about what races and measures are on the ballot – because they vary by district. Instead of looking over each ballot to make sure each voter has the correct races for where they’re registered, they scan the barcodes to confirm the ballot is the correct match for each voter. 

The stubs must be removed because the machines used to scan and count votes can’t process ballots with the extra strip of paper attached to the top.

If you forget to tear off the stub, it’s not the end of the world; elections staff will remove rogue stubs when opening envelopes. But that can be time consuming, so the folks at King County Elections would really, really like it if you took the tab off at home.

“We weigh them to get a sense of how many are being returned, and for the May presidential primary we had 25.8 pounds of ballot stubs,” Hodson said.

Starting with the August primary ballot, King County ballots feature a colorful, redesigned stub that doubles as a voting memento. The stub for the 2016 General Election was blue and sported an “I voted!” logo.

In Snohomish County, the tab looks like the rest of the ballot: white with black text and instructions to “vote both sides of ballot and remove stub.”  

Some voters in the Puget Sound area don’t have to worry about stubs at all. Ballots in Pierce County, for example, don’t have a perforated strip across the top.

Garth Fell, elections and recording manager for Snohomish County, said his team also removes any forgotten stubs so ballots don’t get stuck in processing equipment. But reminding voters to tear off the tab at home isn’t a big issue for Snohomish County elections staff.

“In the grand scheme of things, it's a relatively small number of people that do not remove the stubs,” Fell said. “It is something we have to look for, but not something I worry about slowing down our ballot processing.”

Oh, and while we’re on the topic of things you don’t really have to do: You don’t technically have to put a stamp on your ballot. But here’s why election officials would like it if you did.