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November 20, 2012 > Ballot Physiology 101

Ballot Physiology 101

By William Marshak

It ain't over until the Registrar says it's over! While politicians have either breathed a sigh of relief or experienced the angst of coming up short at the polls, no matter what you read or hear, the ballot count goes on. A visit to Alameda County Registrar of Voters Dave Macdonald at the Alameda County Courthouse confirms this as ballots cast for the November 6, 2012 election are still being recorded. Although media reports project winners and losers, the final say is with City Clerks and the County Recorder.

"It's a common misconception," says Macdonald. "Tuesday comes, polls close and media predicts winners." Throughout the emotions of Election Day, for Macdonald and his team, it is just the beginning. On the evening of elections, his staff is on duty until two or three o'clock in the morning and back at work at 8:30 a.m. the next day. "We work at least 10-12 hours every day - including Saturdays, Sundays and holidays - after that until our work is done."

All ballots are counted and, in California, roughly 54 percent of registered voters are listed as "permanent" vote by mail. A trend toward vote by mail is mirrored by a similar trend by these voters to drop off their ballot at their polling place on Election Day. "That's okay, we would rather have them do that than wait until the last second and mail it; it can come in too late."

In this election, approximately 100,000 vote by mail ballots were cast in this manner. "We began working on those Wednesday morning. Every single signature [on the envelope] is compared with registration records and verified through signature characteristics, ballots are sorted by precinct, envelopes are opened and ballots scanned. That is a lengthy and laborious process." If a signature cannot be verified, the voter is informed that a new registration is required.

As with any machine/human interaction, errors occur and when ballots are rejected, they are not discarded, rather are manually inspected. One very common error is called an "over vote" in which a "yes" and "no" vote are both marked. "If we can determine the voter intent, we will copy that ballot to a new ballot." Macdonald says they average 1,500 of these errors every day.

Provisional Ballots represent another large number of ballots to be verified and counted. These are cast by people who decide to vote in a precinct other than where they are registered. For instance, if someone who lives in Livermore is in Berkeley for Election Day and decides to cast their ballot there. That person cannot vote for local Berkeley contests, but they can cast a ballot for applicable contests. A special envelope is used with the name, address and signature of the voter. These ballots are set aside and processed after Election Day. In this election, Macdonald says they have 40,000 provisional ballots to count. Any changes to a ballot are checked, cross-checked and transferred manually to a new ballot.

If a vote on the ballot is found to be defective, the rest of the votes on that ballot will be counted. In some cases, people write notes on the ballot or begin to make a mark which is obviously not their choice. Five teams of two correct these problems; this is called a "remake process." Each ballot - original and duplicate - is stamped and numbered and each vote is called out as the duplicate is filled in. Ballots are then switched and read back to their partner to verify this has been done correctly. Both ballots are stamped, numbered and initialed.

"By law, we have 28 days to do all of this," says Macdonald. "Although some large counties take the full 28 days to certify the election, Alameda County is probably the fastest to certify results."

Technically, the City Clerk is the election official for each city; all paperwork that relates to a city election is filed with the clerk and passed on to the County Registrar. "Basically, they contract with us to conduct the election." The County also counts votes for state and federal elections as well. Each state has its own rules for conducting a presidential election. For instance in California there is no voter ID requirement at the polls; others have such constraints. Our certification goes to the Secretary of State who then takes care of the state and national process.

"This election was not unusual; in fact, it was a little lighter than four years ago. We had people coming to our office to vote and, at any one time, 20-30 people were in line. Four years ago, we had a line wrapped around the building." With the systems in place, it is manageable.

"The media tells you who won, but the Registrar of Voters never tells you who won until the results are certified. I am not in the prediction business; I am in the reporting business." Concession and victory speeches are meaningless until the election is certified. "If you give a concession speech and you win, you are elected!"

Any voter can request a recount within five days of certification but is required to pay for the service. "We have done recounts; quite a few of them. None of them have altered the outcome." Asked about the counting process, Macdonald says, "I legally have to count every ballot."

During the election process, observers simply watch the process but are restricted from interacting. During a recount, those involved are more of a participant. Each ballot is scrutinized by each side of an issue and if there is disagreement, the Registrar makes the final decision. Recounts may be held while office is held by the certified winner.

Election season requires a significant number of personnel. Once the certification process is complete, the staff of 200 plus employees drops to about 26. This permanent employee group is responsible for cleanup and equipment maintenance. All records are stored for 22 months in a 40,000 square foot warehouse. People continue to register to vote and file maintenance keeps track of voters who have moved or are inactive. And, of course, there are other elections to be managed.

Ballots are printed and distributed by the Registrar. Each polling location is issued a series of bilingual ballots - English and another language - and has bilingual poll workers. Poll workers are trained to make sure they do not run out of ballots in a dominant second language - Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, Tagalog. "Everything we have is translated into these languages," says Macdonald. "Language requirements are based on the latest census."

If you want to know the latest election results, visit:

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