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Voters' Ballots Go Through Elaborate Journey At Registrar's Office Before They're Counted

A woman is shown voting at the Registrar of Voters in Kearny Mesa in this Oct. 13, 2020 file photo.
Matthew Bowler
A woman is shown voting at the Registrar of Voters in Kearny Mesa in this Oct. 13, 2020 file photo.

Hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots are coming into the San Diego County Registrar of Voters office. But once the ballot gets to the Registrar’s Office, the journey for a ballot is just beginning.

The first step for any ballot processing is a gigantic storage room filled with tens of thousands of envelopes. There the signatures on the envelopes get scanned and are either verified or flagged. Then the ballots are passed through another scanner to be sorted.

Voters’ Ballots Go Through Elaborate Journey At Registrar’s Office Before They’re Counted
Listen to this story by Shalina Chatlani.

“We have 355,000 mail ballots that have been returned thus far," said San Diego County Registrar Michael Vu. "As of to-date, as you can see this is our mail ballot sorting room. We have actually two sorters. They run approximately 44,000 envelopes per hour at top speed, that’s potentially 88,000 per hour."


The approved ballot envelopes get a good shake from a machine so it can be loosened up before it goes the room next door, where the ballots be extracted. Staff in this part of the office check the ballots over to make sure they’re all filled out correctly, no circles around bubbles or marks in random places.

Vu says with every election, there are often a lot of damaged ballots. So staff have to remake the ballots according to voters’ intent, so that the ballot is counted correctly.

“When you think about that 1.9 million voters out there, let’s say you have even half a percent of those [are marked incorrectly], that’s quite a bit of damaged ballots,” Vu said.

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“Whenever you have a damaged ballot that won't run through the scanner, what we have to do is remake the ballot. It takes two people to do it, one person to call out the votes off the original ballot, and the other is to mark it on screen,” he said.


And that remaking of ballots is all done according to state standards. Eventually all the ballots end up here in a third room for ballot tabulation.

“This is the final step after we've verified the signature, we’ve double checked all of our work and we’ve extracted the ballots. It comes over to our tabulation room where we’ve got high speed scanners,” Vu said.

Vu says some voters have brought up concerns like mismatched signatures on their ballots versus their drivers’ license. He says that’s not an issue. The system is actually checking for the uniqueness of the signature, how the letters are curled or dotted, in order to verify it.

“Once we receive the ballot, all the devices are tracking that ballot all the way through the system … The system is actually expecting every single envelope in its respective place, and if it’s missing, it flags that.”

Vu says most ballots will not be cast on election night.

“Definitely it’s going to be coming through the mail. The majority of all votes cast have been mail balloting.”

But he says all the activities seen here will be the same on Nov. 3, just expanded and with more staff.