Journey of a mail-in ballot: multi-step process assures integrity of vote count

Journey of a mail-in ballot: multi-step process assures integrity of vote count
Voters Services Supervisor Jessica Datangel, goes over the signature verification process with Walnut Creek resident Patti Bittenbender, a participant in Certified Election Observer program, during the group’s visit to one of the stops in a tour of the Contra Costa County Election Division Offices. (David Scholz photo)

CONTRA COSTA COUNTY, CA (Nov. 9, 2022) — With all its hype and fanfare, Election Day gets top billing as the television and Internet are full of wall-to-wall coverage of voter misinformation and election denier rumblings.

But as important, especially in the current political climate, is the extraction effort that Contra Costa County election officials undertake to securely and timely prepare the more than 150,000 vote-by-mail (VBM) ballots that make their way to the Martinez offices from countywide 24/7 drop boxes and early voting locations, as well as those arriving by traditional mail ahead of Nov. 8.

“Vote-by-mail extraction underscores the democratic process simply because it creates transparency on how ballots are prepared to be counted,” said Dawn Kruger, civic outreach/engagement specialist with the elections department.

Longer processing window

There was a time when Extraction Day centered on the Saturday before Election Day. But over time, the rules for when processing ballots could start moved to 10 business days before Election Day. Now, that process starts 29 days out.

“Extraction Day previously became an event with many volunteers helping us get the mountains of VBM ballots out of their envelopes so they could be scanned. When code was changed to allow us to begin processing VBM ballots earlier, the need for the big push the Saturday before has become less necessary,” Kruger said.

In the leadup to the current election, officials saw fewer early returns of ballots compared with the spring primary. Kruger suspects that more voters are back at offices and out in the community and no longer have the same concerns about contracting COVD-19. Or, it goes back to simple procrastination about turning in ballots, which likely won’t ever change.

Waiting until Election Day to turn in VBM ballots meant that these ballots were not going to be processed until after Election Day, as the time and effort it takes to fully process a VBM ballot (scan pass, signature checking, group sort, extraction, scanning, adjudication if necessary, and tabulation) can take days.

Observers get special access

The newly launched Certified Election Observer (CEO) Program further reinforces the integrity of the election process. According to Kruger, the program’s goal is to increase public trust in elections by providing an even more transparent and educational view into the entire process.

“Unlike traditional election observers, who visit to observe one specific activity, the CEO program aims to provide individuals an overall view of the entire election process with behind-the-scenes access,” she said.

“When we should be celebrating elections, people are questioning them,” said Renee Zeimer of Moraga, a self-proclaimed “election nerdy person.” That focus on voting security motivated her to become a CEO.

Her interest in elections goes back to her days in Girl Scouts, when she first accompanied her mom to the polls, and later on as a poll worker herself and then volunteering with the ballot extraction process.

More CEOs needed in 2024

Depending on the level of extraction activity, as few as 10 volunteers could be involved – with about 100 on the heaviest days. Officials earmarked Nov. 5 as a particularly busy day and projected the heaviest days would immediately follow Election Day.

Along with viewing the extraction of ballots in teams of two, volunteer CEOs recently toured locations where incoming ballots and their signatures are initially scanned, the offices where personnel carefully view and verify ballot envelope signatures for accuracy and finally the secured second floor room in the county’s election headquarters where ballots are fed into tabulating machines

The CEO program is open to any residents who are interested. It’s currently scheduled around elections, so the next opportunity to participate will be during the 2024 election cycle unless there is an election called for any reason in 2023.

With voters having more time and options for casting their ballots, election days have quickly morphed into election seasons – or the more apropos election month.

In turn, the busy ballot extraction process has been altered, too. The result being an extended process for election officials who are aggressively working to stay ahead every step of the way in order to achieve smooth and fair elections now and in years to come.

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