Story by Breanna Reeves | Photos by Aryana Noroozi

Registrar of Voters across the state have begun processing and counting mail-in and early voting ballots as they gear up for the midterm election on November 8.

While voters may spend minutes marking their ballots, the task of processing and verifying ballots takes a bit longer. The San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters invited members of the media to observe the journey of a ballot once residents cast it. 

There are five essential steps that a ballot goes through after it is submitted to the Registrar of Voters: sorting, signature verification, ballot extraction, counting (and adjudication) and tabulation.

Each step has several security measures to maintain the integrity of election ballots, such as having only trained staff at each station, keycard access-only rooms, large windows for observer viewing and a two-person rule.

With approximately 1.1 million registered voters across San Bernardino County, the facility began verifying ballots on November 1 in anticipation of the millions of ballots that are set to come in over the next week.

Sorting

Once a ballot is submitted in the sealed envelope and signed, the ballots are sent through a sorting machine that electronically scans the envelopes to capture barcodes and signatures.

“It’s a sealed envelope at this point with the ballot inside, hopefully. These envelopes are just fed through the machine [and] the machine sorts it, but through the sorting process, it captures the image of that barcode and the signature,” Stephenie Shea, Interim Assistant, San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters, explained.

Left: A staff member places sealed ballot envelopes in a high speed electronic sorting machine that will capture the barcodes and signatures. Right: A staff member gathers the envelopes that were run through the electronic sorting machine in order to capture the barcodes and signatures on each ballot. (Aryana Noroozi, Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local, November 2, 2022)

“Basically, the ballot envelopes have a unique barcode on them as well as the voter signature on them. And this is the sorting machine which basically captures that barcode and the voter signature, and that’s where it goes next to signature verification for the group to compare those signatures.”

Signature verification

Once the ballot envelopes are scanned and uploaded, they move to a signature verification process where staff at computers examine and verify the signatures on the envelopes. Staff are trained to look for two points of verification in the signatures, such as specific characteristics of the signature and compare the ballot signature to what the Registrar of Voters has on file. If staff are unable to verify signatures, voters will receive a letter from the department requesting a signature to verify their ballot.

Staff verify ballot signatures of San Bernardino County voters using protocol to identify and compare two points of verification of signatures.  (Aryana Noroozi, Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local, November 2, 2022)

Ballot extraction

After signatures are verified, the ballots move on to ballot extraction. During the extraction process, more than a dozen workers are tasked with removing ballots from envelopes and organizing them into boxes that are categorized by “pocket numbers” which are associated with the precincts that correspond to the ballots.

Left: A staff member examines a ballot as part of the ballot extraction process.  During the extraction process, over a dozen workers are tasked with removing ballots from envelopes and organizing them into boxes that are categorized by “pocket numbers” which correlate to the precincts that correspond to the ballots. Right: A staff member prepares to place a ballot into a “pocket number” box. In the extraction process, workers remove ballots and organize them by precincts that correspond to the ballots.  (Aryana Noroozi, Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local, November 2, 2022)

At this point, the three-card ballots are separated from the signed envelopes, making them anonymous as they are prepared to be scanned. The pocket number boxes are stacked on metal racks and are then moved to the counting room.

Counting

Pocket boxes are stacked on racks while three-person teams in blue vests scan the ballots in the counting room, using high-speed counting machines to scan the ballots. During this process, trained staff prepare the ballots by making them as flat as possible in order to be fed into the machine and scanned into the system. 

“This room is by approved access only, so no one can just walk in here and do this. The staff members that are in here, the ones that are wearing vests, they’re the only ones that are on the machines counting,” Melissa Eickman, Media Specialist, San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters, said.

Left: Staff members collaborate in three-person teams in the counting room. Only the trained staff, who wear blue vests, are allowed in the room where the ballots are counted. Right: Staff members  prepare the ballots to be counted by ensuring they are as flat as possible to be fed into the high-speed counting machine.  (Aryana Noroozi, Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local, November 2, 2022)

“You might see some other people without the vest that are working with them. Those would be our leads that are going to be helping if they have any issues or [they] have any questions if the machine is not sure if the ballot made the count.”

After ballots are scanned into the system, the server determines if a ballot needs to be reviewed by a supervisor, also known as being adjudicated.

The process of adjudication for ballots

Christina Anderson has been a Business Systems Analyst III (BSA III) for San Bernardino County for 15 years. She explained that there are three types of ballots that are reviewed in the adjudication room: blank ballots, over count ballots and write-in ballots.

A blank ballot is when all the voting targets  (bubbles) are blank or when voters circle all the names or check them, leaving nothing in the voting targets.

An over-count ballot is when a voter mistakenly fills in two bubbles where there is only a need for one vote. In some instances, voters will correctly fill in a bubble, but change their answer and put an X through the bubble and mark another. The two person team reviews such ballots and correctly counts them as the voter intended. 

An undervote ballot is when a voter chooses not to vote in a particular contest on the ballot, so they will leave it blank. Undervote ballots are not selected for review in the adjudication room because “everything would come through here,” said Anderson, due to a lot of voters opting not to vote in some contests on the ballot.

However, if an entire ballot is left blank, that would be selected for review because it could indicate that a voter chose to vote not according to the instructions. 

Trained staff review ballots that are flagged for adjudication. Blank ballots, over count ballots and write-in ballots are the three types of ballots that are reviewed in the adjudication room.  (Aryana Noroozi, Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local, November 2, 2022)

All write-in ballots have to be reviewed. According to Anderson, “If it’s not a certified write-in or a candidate on the ballot, then we will remove it and it becomes an undervote because it’s not a qualified write-in, but if it causes an overvote, [that is] if they mark the target and they’re consistent, then that becomes an overvote and nobody gets a vote.”

In this room, the two person teams are tasked with reviewing ballots and determining, based on specific rules, what the voters marked on their ballots. If voters showed consistency with voting a particular way across their ballot such as filling in the appropriate number of bubbles, but made an error and crossed out a bubble, the teams will go ahead and mark the correct bubble intended by the voter. 

Staff examine the ballots and based on the California Secretary of State’s Uniform Vote Counting Standards, make determinations on what the voter’s intent was.

Tabulation

The final process in the journey of an election ballot is tabulation, which is when ballot results are counted. No states are allowed to report results before Election Day. Although ballots are processed through tabulators before Election Day, they are not tabulated until Election Day.

Data from the ballots that have been processed and scanned are stored in a secure tabulation room or “valid tally server room” as Eickman called the room. The room is card key access only and two people are required in the room together at all times. 

“We have cameras in this room. So, we’re being filmed right now and there is a two person rule. The only people that come in here are the people that have business in here. We don’t typically bring observers or anyone in here,” Eickman explained during the media tour. “But we do have those windows. On Election Night, we shut down our employee break room and that’s where our observers are going to be, so they can see what’s going on here.”

A computer is attached to a server in the tabulation room where votes are counted on election night.  The tabulation room contains two servers: a main and backup. No more than two people are allowed in the room and on election night, observers watch through glass windows. (Aryana Noroozi, Black Voice News Newsroom / CatchLight Local, November 2, 2022).

The tabulation room contains two server racks — a main server and a backup server. The computers in the room are only connected to a server, not the internet or wifi. Once the data from an election season is counted, the servers are erased, reformatted and receive a new installment of state-approved software called “The Golden Image.”

“In between elections, all of these computers, all of the adjudication workstations and all of the computers on the high pro [counting machines], as well as these servers on this side, are all loaded back to their original firmware like they’re brand new. And then the software that’s loaded is the [Secretary of State] certified software,” Anderson concluded.

When polls close at 8 p.m. on November 8, unofficial results from early ballots and mail-in ballots will be announced as early as 8:30 p.m., with results being updated every two hours as ballots continue to be tabulated on Election night.

The final stop on the journey for ballots is a gated storage section located on the second floor of the facility where ballots are stored in boxes and locked away for 22 months, as required by law, in the event that the ballots need to be reexamined. After 22 months, ballots are destroyed and the cycle begins again in the next election season.

To confirm that a ballot has been received and processed, voters can track their ballot by visiting https://california.ballottrax.net/voter/.

Authors

  • Breanna Reeves is a reporter in Riverside, California, and uses data-driven reporting to cover issues that affect the lives of Black Californians. Breanna joins Black Voice News as a Report for America Corps member. Previously, Breanna reported on activism and social inequality in San Francisco and Los Angeles, her hometown. Breanna graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in Print & Online Journalism. She received her master’s degree in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics. Contact Breanna with tips, comments or concerns at breanna@voicemediaventures.com or via twitter @_breereeves.

  • Black Voice News photojournalist Aryana Noroozi was born in San Diego, California and graduated with a master’s degree from The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her love for visual storytelling led her to document immigrant and deportee communities and those struggling with addiction. She was a 2020 Pulitzer Center Crisis Reporting Fellow and a GroundTruth Project Migration Fellow. She is currently a CatchLight/Report for America corps member employed by Black Voice News. You can learn more about her at aryananoroozi.com. You can email her at aryana@blackvoicenews.com.

Breanna Reeves

Breanna Reeves is a reporter in Riverside, California, and uses data-driven reporting to cover issues that affect the lives of Black Californians. Breanna joins Black Voice News as a Report for America Corps member. Previously, Breanna reported on activism and social inequality in San Francisco and Los Angeles, her hometown. Breanna graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in Print & Online Journalism. She received her master’s degree in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics. Contact Breanna with tips, comments or concerns at breanna@voicemediaventures.com or via twitter @_breereeves.

Aryana Noroozi

Black Voice News photojournalist Aryana Noroozi was born in San Diego, California and graduated with a master’s degree from The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her love for visual storytelling led her to document immigrant and deportee communities and those struggling with addiction. She was a 2020 Pulitzer Center Crisis Reporting Fellow and a GroundTruth Project Migration Fellow. She is currently a CatchLight/Report for America corps member employed by Black Voice News. You can learn more about her at aryananoroozi.com. You can email her at aryana@blackvoicenews.com.