Most of Kern County’s voters, if past elections are any indication, will mail in their ballots this election season.
Those ballots, mailed out on Oct. 11, are flooding into the Kern County Elections Division right now.
By Tuesday, 35,462 valid ones had come in.
What happens to them? That’s our story.
On Wednesday morning, 22 trays of mail ballots — 8,455 sets of voter choices wrapped snug in their yellow, green or purple envelopes — came through the elections office doors.
Like their earlier brethren, the forms were sorted, photographed, squeezed and re-sorted. Then each valid envelope was slit open and the ballot removed, unfolded and bundled.
It’s a wild ride over vibrating boards, through high-speed machines and under digital imagers until each ballot has been joined with others from the same precinct and secured for early next week when the counting starts.
Through it all, each ballot is carefully tracked, said Kern County Elections Chief Karen Rhea.
IN THE DOOR
Things got rolling when the mail arrived.
Ballots came in large mail trays mixed in with bills, letters, voter registration applications and other correspondence.
The first job was to get the other mail out of the piles. Elections workers did that by hand.
Once the ballots were alone in their trays, they were moved to the sorting room where a massive Pitney Bowes Relia-Vote machine stood.
Workers used a vibrating table to stack the ballots tight, thumping a brick of ballots down, turning them, thumping them again and packing them back in their trays.
Then elections processing clerk Marcie Welch took over.
Welch hefted great blocks of ballots out of their trays and dropped them into the hopper of the Relia-Vote, swinging a retaining arm down to hold them in place while she got more.
When the hopper had a good pile stacked horizontally, Welch moved down the line, smacking the ballots into tighter formation.
Then she grabbed the mouse on the machine’s computer interface and clicked the Relia-Vote into life.
With a whir, the ballots were pulled into the machine one-by-one in a blinding rush — thousands every minute — and shot down a chute to individual built-in holding bins where they joined other ballots from nearby parts of Kern County.
In the moments it took for each ballot to make the trip, it was photographed, the voter’s signature and ballot serial number were captured and the document was checked to see if there were any problems that might require a closer look at it.
As the ballots began stacking up in slots, Noah Hinzo moved them to new trays, slotting a card into the front of each tray that identified where the ballots were from.
In a surprisingly short time, the 22 trays of unsorted mail were put through their first sort.
There would be more.
The ballots — still inside their privacy-protecting envelopes — would be sorted several times until those from each individual voting precinct were grouped into their own tray.
But first, elections officials had to perform a critical check designed to protect voters’ choices from being tampered with.
Across the room, under the surveillance cameras that document everything done in the Elections Division, computers loaded up all the images captured by the Relia-Vote.
The computers matched those images and each ballot’s unique serial number to the voter registration file of the voter that mail ballot was assigned to.
Then elections workers began flipping through a computer interface that displayed the ballot’s signature on the screen with the signature the voter used to sign his or her voter registration form.
Elections workers are trained to look for differences in signatures and — if they see them — tag the ballot electronically.
The next time a tagged ballot would go through the sorting machine, it would be kicked out and held back until six elections workers — finishing with Rhea herself — had looked at the signatures.
Ballots without matching signatures are never opened nor counted.
Ballots that clear the signature check are approved for the final sorting runs and opening.
SLICE AND SORT
There’s a machine for opening, too.
Other elections workers grabbed the ballots, one by one, and slotted them into a machine that slit open the envelope and sucked the paper away from the ballot inside.
The worker grabbed the ballot and pulled it free, stacking it with the others.
Empty envelopes were piled in another stack. Once the envelope is open, Rhea said, it must be separated from the ballot so the voter’s choices remain secret.
But the envelopes must be kept and tracked so that the Elections Division can go back and check if a problem — like a ballot being in the wrong precinct — turns up.
From the opening table the ballots were taken to another table where more workers unfolded them and checked to make sure they were not damaged, were free of identifying marks and had clear marks.
The choices on any damaged ballot must be duplicated on a new form, while four people and the video cameras watch.
Then the ballots were bundled into batches — ready for the counting to start early next week.
In less than two weeks the voting will be over.
But Rhea and her team will work for weeks beyond that, counting late mail and provisional ballots and — most importantly — completing the process of reconciling the election.
“Reconciliation verifies that every (valid) ballot made it through the process and got counted,” Rhea said.
Elections workers will compare the records of all the ballots sorted through the system to voter registration records and the actual ballot tally.
All the numbers have to match up, Rhea said, or elections workers will go back through the trays of ballots to find out what went wrong.
That’s how Rhea makes sure every voter gets to vote and has his or her vote counted.