By Election Day, absentee ballots were marked, placed in an envelope, signed, and mailed, placed in a mailbox, or dropped off at a polling center. Your journey has only just begun.
When ballots arrive at the Orange County Registrar of Voters, a cavernous warehouse behind a cluster of nondescript office buildings in Santa Ana, they go through several steps before being counted — all open to the public.
On Monday, Jeffrey Kontorovsky, a voter registry ambassador, walked five people through the facility to explain the process.
Observers range from curious to skeptical. They have questions about dropbox security, updates to the county electoral roll and how ballots are handled when they arrive at the center, Kontorovsky said.
“It’s a detailed process,” he said. “I really want people to have the information. At the end of the tour when people are feeling better – that’s my favorite part.”
Officials, who have been working every day since Election Day – except for Sunday – have counted more than 878,000 ballots and have more than 59,000 to count by Wednesday night.
The processing of mail-in ballots that arrived on or before Election Day and those that were dropped off at polling centers is almost complete. What remains are those dropped into mailboxes on November 8 and those that arrived in the mail in the seven days following Election Day.
“It’s going to take a while because we’re doing our jobs,” said the voter Bob Page. “We want it to be accurate, and we want to make sure we don’t disenfranchise anyone.”
Ballots are first organized by polling center or dropbox and then entered into a machine that scans and photographs the outside of the envelope with the voter’s signature. The image is transferred to a computer so staff can do this Match this signature to the ones the voter used when registering. Workers zoom in on the autographs to compare the curves and loops.
Their screens can be seen a few meters behind them on large monitors on which representatives of political parties and the public can watch. As of Monday afternoon, about a dozen people were there watching.
Some, like Kristin Manna, 51, a political consultant who works on campaigns for Republican candidates, took notes looking for a pattern that might allow them to ask questions about how signatures were checked.
“You can’t contest signatures, but you can contest the process,” she said. Typically this happens when an employee is moving too quickly or there are concerns that they are not following the rules.
If the signature doesn’t match, the employee flags it for another employee to review. If still not accepted, the ballot goes to a third party who makes the final decision on whether to accept it.
Envelopes that pass the signature test are fed to another machine and cut open so staff can remove the ballots for inspection and scanning.
“We saw ballots with something spilled, torn or even burned,” Kontorovsky said. These ballots are duplicated and then checked by another poll worker before being counted.
Ballots with stray spots or other errors will be reviewed and fixed.
A small group watched on a monitor as an employee corrected a ballot on which the voter had ticked both “yes” and “no” boxes for Proposition 30, which requires an income tax of over $2 million would have raised to fund EV incentives vehicles and fire safety. To indicate the intended choice, the voter circled the “Yes” box, but the machine could not read it.
At the end of the day, the ballot dates are tabulated so the county can update its vote counts.
When a ballot is rejected, the registrar emails the voter to give them an opportunity to heal them by signing a document confirming that they are legitimate. Certain information about the voter, but not who they voted for, is accessible, and campaigns often seek to encourage them to correct ballots. Orange County’s deadline is November 22 at 5 p.m.
A man wearing a black cap that read “Make Crime Illegal Again” stood outside the scanning room Monday, watching a monitor closely while workers corrected errors on ballots.
He declined to give his name but said he showed up because he was “interested in the integrity of the election.”
“I just feel better when I can see it for myself,” he said.
Observation of the vote counting process is enshrined in state law, and Page began public tours this year to help people better understand the operation.
Skepticism about mail-in voting grew in 2020 as then-President Trump made unfounded claims of widespread mail-in fraud that persists this election cycle.
“I hope people see what we’re doing and that we address their concerns,” Page said. “I mean, for some people, this is an emotional issue, so the only thing we can really do is make sure we’re completely transparent.”
Vera Sun, 54, drove from Santa Monica to Santa Ana Monday to watch the count. She heard about it through her courtship for Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) and initially thought it might be a way to help the campaign.
But once she got there, she found she didn’t have much to do other than study, she said.
“It’s boring in a very satisfying way,” Sun said.
As workers and observers streamed in and out of the warehouse on Monday, few glanced at a plaque high on the wall showing the unofficial results of the 1970 general election, when Ronald Reagan ran for governor ran.
Kontorovsky likes to point out that little bit of history on his tours, which are open to the public without reservation, explaining that “that’s how elections were made”.
A man present expressed his own opinion: “It worked there.”
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