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How ballots are actually counted, explained by 3 election officials

Local election officials across the nation are responsible for tallying votes. Here’s how they do it.

An “I voted” sticker.
Local election officials work are tasked with counting ballots in every election.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

With record numbers of early voting, a pandemic raging, and the president seeding doubt about the validity of mail-in ballots, the nation is bracing for a potentially long election night — or multiple nights — before a winner can be called.

Reports have already surfaced that President Trump is prepared to seed skepticism about the vote count, especially in close-call states. As Astead Herndon and Annie Karni reported for the New York Times Saturday evening: “Trump advisers said their best hope was if the president wins Ohio and Florida is too close to call early in the night, depriving Mr. Biden a swift victory and giving Mr. Trump the room to undermine the validity of uncounted mail-in ballots in the days after.”

But as uncertainties swirl, local election officials are working hard. There are somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 (depending on how you count) local election boards across the nation — either elected or appointed depending on the state — and they are composed of people from within the communities they serve. This election, they are processing the surge in absentee ballots and early votes, training up new poll volunteers, battling misinformation, and prepping to spend the next few days counting votes. They are also increasingly concerned that their efforts to preserve integrity in the ballot counting process are being met with misunderstanding and distrust.

“One of the most important things about being an election official that people forget is that we’re citizens very concerned with the health of our democracy, and we act in about as bipartisan or nonpartisan a way as anybody could,” said Adrian Fontes, an election official in Maricopa County, Arizona. “While we have to make our own selections on a ballot, the integrity of the process is so much more important to us than the results of any contest.”

I spoke to three election officials from across the nation about how the ballot counting process works. All of them stressed that those who count election results are members of the community, that it’s normal for the process to take time, and that, above all, voters should be confident that their vote turned in will be counted correctly.

“The biggest challenge that’s different this year is voter confidence”

Ricky Hatch, Weber County, Utah

I’ve been doing elections for 10 years now, and I’ve been involved with elections on the national level for about seven years.

This year, it’s funny because in Utah, as far as processing stuff, there’s really not much difference at all. We’ve done it by mail for a couple of years statewide, so it’s not a big deal for us. The biggest challenge that’s different this year is voter confidence. We have voters who voted by mail for 13 straight elections that all of a sudden are concerned about the security of their ballot.

And so instead of having one, maybe two phone operators to handle phone calls, we’ve had four full-time operators for three weeks handling the calls of voters saying, “I heard that I can’t trust the vote by mail system.” We tell them, here are the controls we have in place and virtually every one of them says, “Oh, ok, so it’s not a big deal.” And then a really small number will say, “Yeah, ok, well, I trust you, but what about California? Or what about Pennsylvania?”

Here in Utah, every active registered voter is mailed a ballot weeks before the election so that they know exactly what’s on the ballot — no surprises. The voter can mail it back to the Postal Service, or they can drop it in a drop box, or they can drop it off in person on Election Day, or they can come in on Election Day and we’ll give them a new one.

The first thing we do when we receive the ballot is we make sure that that voter is registered and that they’ve only voted once and that the ballot envelope that we’ve received hasn’t been spoiled and actually belongs to them. The next thing we do is we look at their signature and we make sure that it matches the signature that we have on file.

All of these pre-checks are done with the envelope closed. So we can’t tell by looking at the envelope if the voter is Republican or Democrat or Independent or how they voted. When we slice open the envelope, we do it in a way where you can’t see the voter’s signature and the ballot at the same time. We remove the ballot, but don’t unfold it, and we do this, of course, around a table with multiple poll workers or election judges. And so everyone’s a check on each other to make sure that no one’s trying to be silly and trying to see how somebody voted.

Once those are removed, then we unfold the ballot and examine it, looking for tears, blood, sticky stuff that might get stuck in the machines. Then we place the ballots in batches from the time we receive them, and we reconcile at each point throughout the process to make sure we don’t lose any ballots or that no new ballots are introduced incorrectly or improperly into the system.

The scanner is the device that actually reads the ballots and converts them from the voter marking the paper into something that a machine can read. We put them into the scanner and then we pull the memory stick out of the machine and walk it over to our tabulation server, which is also in the locked separate area that only a couple of people have access to.

We don’t look at the results until the polls close on election night, at which point we will pull up the report on the tabulation server and that becomes the official report. Then we take a clean memory stick with the report on it and walk that over to the Election Directors office, and they will upload it securely to the state election night reporting system. We also process ballots after Election Day, since in Utah a lot of people will drop their ballots off on Election Day. We expect that by this Friday about 95 percent of the ballots will have been counted.

Passions run high in presidential elections. And that’s as it should be. But as election officials, as election administrators, we have refined that process to make it efficient and secure. And we want the public to have confidence, because we shop at the same grocery stores, we go to the same church buildings as the people that we serve. We’re your neighbors. That’s how we look at it.

“The integrity of the process is so much more important to us than the results of any contest”

Adrian Fontes, Maricopa County, Arizona

I get asked pretty regularly what keeps me up at night, whether it’s hackers or, you know, miscreants from North Korea. And the reality is that it’s misinformation and disinformation that are the biggest threats to our democracy right now.

You know, our system operates on trust. We trust our fellow citizens who are actually the workers that handled the ballot. These are actually Republicans and Democrats who do the bipartisan hand count audit at the end of every election here in Maricopa County. These are retired teachers and college students and folks who live next door.

When these conspiracy theories and rumors abound, what they’re doing is they’re undermining the faith that folks have in their next-door neighbor. You know, citizens just like themselves. And that’s unfortunate. These are people that we can trust.

One of the most important things about being an election official that people forget is that we’re citizens very concerned with the health of our democracy, and we act in about as bipartisan or nonpartisan a way as anybody could. While we have to make our own selections on a ballot, the integrity of the process is so much more important to us than the results of any contest.

Maricopa County, Arizona, is unique because we’re the second-largest voting jurisdiction in the United States of America. So our process is probably about as high speed, low drag as you can get in the country.

So effectively, what we’ve got is two types of tabulators or scanners that take care of the ballots once they’ve been processed. For the earlies to get processed, each mail-in ballot has an envelope with the affidavit on the outside and the voter signature gets scanned and verified, and then a bipartisan board opens up that envelope to verify that everything’s good to go. They send those in a stack into a big ballot tabulation center. If it’s a person who’s voting in person at a polling place on Election Day, they’ll actually have a fresh ballot printed for them at one of our vote centers, and any voter can vote anywhere, which is incredibly convenient for our voters. Those ballots will go through their own scanners there at the vote center on Election Day.

We do results [for early votes] at 8 pm on election night, which is one hour after polls close. Then we do results of the vote center tallies as those come in physically to the ballot tabulation center through the evening, and then any of the late early ballots you receive on Election Day or that haven’t been fully processed before Election Day. As the tally goes up, we report those out every evening at 7 pm, starting one day after Election Day until the final results are complete. So it really depends on how many ballots get turned in late on Election Day in those envelopes.

We won’t have final, final, official numbers until the earliest after 5 pm on Tuesday, a week after Election Day. And that’s because, in Arizona, we have what’s called conditional provisional curing period of five business days after Election Day, where a voter who may not have ID on Election Day can still draw a ballot and still vote that ballot.

I was a candidate [for Maricopa County recorder] in 2016, but it took us, I think 11 or 12 days after Election Day to get to the point where we could actually call my race because it was so close. So, you know, I know what it means to wait for results from a candidate’s perspective. And there was a lot of close races in 2016, as folks remember. But we’ve done a lot better as time moves forward, so I don’t expect to be waiting anywhere near that long this year.

“We are trying to make sure that voters know exactly what’s happening behind the scenes”

Maribeth Witzel-Behl, Madison, Wisconsin

I’ve been city clerk since 2006. We have 5,365 people scheduled to work at the polls on Election Day. Ordinarily, we have about 3,000. And so we have more poll workers than ever during the pandemic, and a lot of those are first-term officials.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who are new to working at the polls and they have a mom or grandma or an aunt who ordinarily would be working but is unable to this time. So they’ve decided to step up and fill that role. In addition to that, we have some large employers in the area who are giving their employees the day off so they can work at the polls.

In Madison, we process the absentee ballots right at the polling place for those voters. The officials there will carry five absentee envelopes at a time up to the poll book, announce the voter’s names and addresses at the poll book, and those voters are assigned a voter number. Then, the officials will open those envelopes, separate the envelopes from the ballot and feed the ballots into the tabulator to be counted. So when the results are posted on election night, the results from each ward in Madison include the absentees from that ward and the votes cast at the polling place at that ward on Election Day.

When you cast that absentee ballot, the envelope is specific to you. And that’s what gets announced at the poll book. But whether that ballot inside is gonna be counted is determined by the envelope itself. No matter who you vote for or whether you even choose to return a blank ballot, once that envelope is checked in and assigned a voter number, we are processing that ballot.

So it’s not like anybody can open the absentee envelopes and then decide whether they’re going to be counted. That sealed envelope is checked into the poll book. Once the ballots are set into the machine, there’s no way to go back into the ballot box and figure out which ballot was yours. That ballot is a secret ballot.

There are concerns about how do I make sure my ballot was counted after Election Day, and we have to actually manually update that information in the state system. So the next day, you can’t go into the state system to verify that they processed your ballot because we’re going page by page through the poll book and updating everybody’s voter record. But you can, in Wisconsin, log into the state system with your name and date of birth to see that your absentee was received by the clerk’s office and that it was sent to a polling place to be counted.

We should be able to process those during the day on Election Day and run the results as we would usually. We don’t expect any delays because we have so many poll workers available to process these absentees.

We really value transparency, and are trying to make sure that voters know exactly what’s happening behind the scenes. We developed a podcast series about everything that’s taking place. And we’ve had more media in the office than usual, just so voters could be able to see what is going on while they’re unable to come and observe like they ordinarily might do.

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