The count continues: Election workers have rigorous system for tallying votes
Special to the Sierra Sun
People can watch Nevada County election officials count the June 7 primary votes through a new window installed in the Eric Rood Administrative Center’s Clerk-Recorder/Registrar of Voters’ Office.
The process is long and bureaucratic, involving a strict chain of custody and series of authentications to ensure a free and fair election.
According to Mary Ann Townsend, a temp who has tallied Nevada County’s votes for the last nine years, her team has 27 days from June 7 to certify the election results.
That means signature verification of the ballot’s envelope, scanning ballots and consolidating the information on a USB, circling back with voters whose ballots are filled out improperly and sorting the paper ballots by their consolidated precinct number, which is included in their ballot ID number.
Senior Elections Official Kyle Kenney said the consolidated precinct number is given to registered voters based off their address.
“That means someone in unincorporated Nevada County (or outside of the Nevada Irrigation District) will have a vote or election that Grass Valley might not have,“ Kenney said.
Kenney said there were 78 precincts in this past election cycle, but noted that the number of voters per precinct varies and the total number of precincts is subject to change every election cycle.
“Even the homeless are allowed to vote and register, but they need a physical address or cross streets,” Kenney said. “We can precinct them that way.”
Kenney said precincts cannot cross district lines, but can bisect a major roadway.
The temps Clerk-Recorder/Registrar of Voters Greg Diaz employs to assist are well versed in the protocol to collect and count ballots. Some oversaw the county adopt the Voters Choice Act, a piece of legislation meant to increase voter access in 2016. It was subsequently implemented in 2018.
The mail-in ballots, an option available to every registered voter in Nevada County, was one of many targets for some people who claimed voter fraud during the 2020 presidential election.
There are 58 counties in the state, Diaz explained. Twenty-seven are VCA counties, two are all mail-in and the rest rely on in-person polling places. Nevada County was one of five which piloted the vote-by-mail program.
“That added the drop boxes and the mandatory mailing,” Townsend said, referring to how every Nevada County voter has a mail-in ballot available to them and can drop them outside of their district.
First and foremost, two employees are always present when dealing with the ballots, Diaz said.
Diaz said in the first week of his first term, he asked if the sheriff would assist the transport of ballots, as they had for him in the same position in the county of San Francisco and as Natalie Adona’s opponent for the top elections job, Jason Tedder, suggested during a debate prior to the June 7 election.
“I got a very quick answer,” Diaz said. “The first letter was ‘n’ and the last letter was an ‘o.’ The first sheriff did not want to assist and did not want the vehicles to be used. I’m sure he had his reasons.”
Diaz said at one point, Boy Scouts would go retrieve the ballots and bring them in, as well as Nevada Union High School students.
“Elections are a participatory event,” Diaz said. “I think the community enjoyed that.”
Now, ballots cast in drop boxes over the days leading up to the election are collected on a daily basis.
Two employees go to the drop box and empty the ballots into a bag. Once the votes are in, employees seal the bag with a locking tag labeled with a unique number.
“When a sealer is put on anything, we have a form where the seal number is put down and initialed by the two people,” Diaz said. “Then, when it comes here, that seal number has to be read to the person accepting.”
The process follows the same procedure for mail-in ballots.
Two elections office temps go to the post office with their badges. The postmaster signs and enters the time that the ballots are picked up before the pair returns the ballots to the elections office in a sealed bag.
Bags of ballots from the post office and the drop boxes are unsealed for another pair to conduct “a physical count” — still sealed in their individual envelopes — and the number counted by hand is added to the original form.
Once the bag is unsealed, the still-sealed ballots are run through a signature scanner machine, which snaps a photo of each signature.
“If people forgot their signature or it looks different, if we don’t have a phone number or email address, we’ll send you a letter and give you an opportunity to give you a signature,” Townsend said.
If voters forgo the drop box option and choose to come in person with their ballot in hand, the document must be destroyed and they will be issued a new ballot
“We can’t issue anther ballot unless that first one is suspended,” 12-year election temp vet Myra Davies-Easley said. “You’re allowed to destroy it yourself or we will destroy it for you.”
Davies-Easley said the voter is provided a new paper ballot which goes into a ballot box. They can also cast their vote onscreen.
The ballot boxes are emptied at the end of the day following the same procedure as the drop box, sealed and uniquely identified.
“If you use a machine, the electronic machine marks your choices, prints out the ballot and then you take it and feed it into the scanner,” Davies-Easley said.
The scanner reads each side of the ballot page and an American Flag icon pops up once the digital ballot is accepted.
Davies-Easley said that gives an opportunity to in-person voters to verify whether or not they meant to undervote, or leave at least one election blank.
“If it pops up you didn’t vote for district supervisor, you can ask the person, ‘Did you mean to vote for this? It’s OK to leave it blank,’” Davies-Easley said. “Some people — especially the elderly — are like, ‘Oh, I missed one,’ and a lot of people are like, ‘I didn’t know anything about those people,’ and they have the option to cast the ballot as is.”
On-site scanners tabulate the votes, Davies-Easley said, adding that no human eye ever sees a voter’s selection, as the vote is collected and tallied automatically by USBs connected to the scanner’s hard drive.
“Nothing is connected to the internet,” Davies-Easley said. “It’s un-hackable.”
Once paper ballots are unsheathed, “There’s no way for us to track a ballot back to an envelope,” Davies-Easley said, adding, “that’s by design.”
The unsheathed ballots, which contain no other identifier other than a bar code pertaining to one’s ballot ID, are kept, along with a digital copy.
VERIFICATION AND COUNTING
With a window into the room where signatures are scanned and votes are verified, workers say the elections office offers transparency.
Officials said they have had one instance when a man turned in two registration cards.
“His mother was deceased,” Townsend said, “and the documents were turned over to the (district attorney).”
Townsend said the office had another person who voted and dated their ballot prior to their time of death.
“If the date they voted was prior to them passing, that vote counts,“ Townsend said, adding that the state — and The Union newspaper — sends a list of those newly deceased in the county.
“We have to have copy of death certificates,” Townsend said, adding that it can be photocopied as opposed to certified.
Davies-Easley has amassed and tallied votes for 12 years, Townsend for nine years and Angela Andes for the last four years.
Like other county employees, temps submit job applications through the county’s Human Resources Department. They are fingerprinted and subject to background checks.
Their work in the 2020 election was reviewed and approved by the Nevada County Civil Grand Jury’s audit, which involved verifying the votes cast on paper ballots with what the scanning machines tallied.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at email@example.com
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