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The ins and outs of counting votes: Lane County Elections holds “media day” to give an inside view of how they process ballots

By ANDREW GRIFFIN/for The Herald  —  On Thursday, May 16, Lane County Elections held a “media day” at their office in which members of the press were given an inside look at how they count and process ballots for elections, including the upcoming Primary Election that will be held on May 21. 

 

During the event, Lane County Elections Clerk Dena Dawson and Public Information Officer Devon Ashbridge led attendees on a tour through the office in order to see every step of ballot processing in detail. “Our goal is to give local journalists a more in-depth understanding of how ballots are processed and elections conducted so they have confidence in our local efforts and can help stop mis- and disinformation,” said Ashbridge.

 

Election workers Cooper and Rusty unload ballots from tote boxes and tamp them down, preparing them to be fed through the ballot sorter. Andrew Griffin photo

The process starts once tightly sealed tote boxes containing the ballots arrive at the Elections office. Each box is shut with a numbered seal to ensure that they have not been tampered with during the time it takes for them to reach the office. Record is kept not only on the number printed on the seal, but also the time and date on which the seal was affixed as well as who affixed it.

 

Once these boxes arrive at the office, they are opened by two workers of opposite party affiliation who then sort the ballots to be run through a ballot sorter. This machine quickly scans signatures on the outside of ballots to see if they match up with signatures on Oregon’s voter registration database. If there is any potential issue with a signature not matching, it is sent to be reviewed by workers before they make their way further in the process.

 

According to Dawson, this step not only verifies the ballots for further processing, but also makes sure no

Election Worker LaDonna, a member of the deconstruction team, reviews a ballot. Andrew Griffin photo

voter can submit multiple ballots. “It’s basically marking ballots as received as soon as it runs them through the sorter,” said Dawson. “So when people say ‘oh, I could vote two ballots,’ you can’t, because as soon as one ballot is received in the system, if you were to get a replacement ballot and try to return that one, the system is like ‘no, you already returned another ballot.’”

 

After being scanned by the sorter, verified ballots are then sent to the office’s deconstruction team. This bi-partisan group of election workers is tasked with removing the ballots from envelopes and preparing them to be sent to a ballot counter. Additionally, deconstructors will review tallies on ballots to make sure they can properly be read by the ballot counter.

 

“Nothing goes to deconstruction though until the signature has been verified,” said Ashbridge. “No ballot that doesn’t have a verified signature on it even gets as far as deconstruction.”

 

Lane County Election Clerk Dena Dawson demonstrates the inner workings of a ballot sorter. Andrew Griffin photo

After deconstruction, ballots are then taken to the final step in the process: the actual counting of the ballots, which is done by workers who feed the ballots through an automated counter machine. This process is performed in a highly secure room that only authorized workers are allowed to enter, ensuring that no outsiders can potentially tamper with the counting process. Before they are run through, the amount of ballots being counted is tallied both before and after the process, and if there is a difference in the tally at any point, the process is walked back and restarted.

 

“None of our full time staff can get into a room by themselves,” said Dawson. “You need two people during the active election cycle. The physical security of these voting systems is how we build that integrity of the voting process. No one can get in here to manipulate these machines.”

 

Throughout every step of the process, from the moment ballots arrive, to after they are stored, authorized observers are present to watch over the workers and ensure that there are no discrepancies. Before they are allowed to attend, observers must sign an agreement that they will not interfere, and if they do, they will be removed. Additionally, every room in which the process takes place is monitored and live streamed for public viewing on the Lane County Elections YouTube channel.

 

As a reminder, an upcoming Primary Election will be held on Tuesday, May 21, with ballot drop sites closing at 8 p.m. that day. “We always hope that voters return their ballots early,” said Dawson. “Mail ballot processing takes a long time, so if you return your ballot early and there’s an issue with a challenged signature or you forgot to sign your ballot, you have a long runway to make a remedy for that situation.”

Andrew Griffin is a fourth-year student at the U of O School of Journalism and Communications. Andrew has experience as a freelance writer, having published work for the Clackamas Print, Daily Emerald, and Pamplin Media. Andrew also has experience in graphic design/web design.
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