County clerk stresses safety of absentee voting process
May 7, 2020
With the COVID-19 pandemic increasing the likelihood that the 2020 elections will rely more heavily than usual on absentee ballots – otherwise known as absentee voting – County Clerk Linda Fritz would like to emphasize that the process is much safer than rumor may have you believe.
While the Democratic Party chose to perform its presidential caucus by write-in vote and the Republican Party hosted its convention online, no official word has yet been given on how the primary and general election could look. Governor Mark Gordon stated during a recent press conference that this will be a decision announced by Secretary of State Ed Buchanan and is under consideration at this time.
Discussions held between Fritz and the county commissioners on Monday morning gave a hint of changes to come. Directives from the Secretary of State’s Office will mean that counties may have no fewer than one but no more than seven polling places for this year’s elections, which will require Crook County to reduce its usual number by three, while social distancing rules will mean that some polling stations may need to be moved.
Meanwhile, Fritz says, some polling places may need to be moved to different facilities if the county clerk is unable to recruit the statutory three election judges per polling place. This, she says, is where the option to absentee vote becomes critical.
“Absentee ballots are the process by which a voter can request and then cast their ballot ahead of time, whether because they are unavailable on election day, physically unable to go to the polls or simply just choose to vote in the privacy of their own home,” Fritz says.
“Often you see posts on social media about voter fraud and ‘stuffing the ballot box’ where absentee ballots are concerned, but you may be surprised at how secure the process is.”
The security on the statewide registration program, where your voter information is entered and stored, is complex, Fritz says.
“When a voter requests an absentee ballot, they are asked a series of questions unique to that voter’s information and it is checked against their voter registration in the system. The voter informs us of where they would like their ballot mailed and an absentee request form is filled out,” she says.
“Within the voter system, we enter the request for the absentee. The system tracks the date of the request, the mailing address, the ballot type they will receive (such as the party type and district or precinct) and how the request was received from the voter.”
The ballot is then picked out of a locked cabinet by a deputy clerk and checked to ensure it is correct. The deputy initials the bottom of the ballot in red ink and prepares it for mailing with a return envelope labeled with the voter’s name, district and precinct, party and a unique barcode specifically assigned from the voter system.
“The ballot and envelope are then double checked by another deputy to make sure that the correct ballot is being mailed,” Fritz says. “The ballot is then put in the ‘inner-return’ envelope, which is put into an outer envelope, addressed to the voter, and finally it is mailed.”
The original absentee request form is locked in a secure cabinet, awaiting the return of the completed ballot. When it comes back, the deputy verifies the envelope has a valid signature, date stamps it and puts it in a locked box until it is receipted back into the statewide voter system the same day.
“From there, it is locked in another secured cabinet until it is transferred to the absentee counting board on election day,” Fritz says.
The absentee counting board is made up of three registered voters that represent at least two of the major political parties. The board is appointed by the county clerk, Fritz says, and its members must take an oath.
Members are then trained in the correct process. On election day, they are provided with a poll book of registered voters generated by the statewide voter system. In order to transfer the sealed absentee ballot envelopes to the absentee board, a deputy enters the names from each absentee ballot envelope that was received on an affidavit form.
“That form is signed by the county clerk, a copy is made and kept by the clerk and the still-sealed returned absentee envelopes are then secured in an envelope with the affidavit attached to the outside,” Fritz says.
“They are then hand delivered to the absentee counting board in a secured room in the courthouse.”
The absentee counting board checks the voter names listed on the affidavit and marks their name in the poll book, Fritz says.
“Each sealed absentee ballot envelope is then checked for the voter’s signature. One of the judges then opens the still sealed envelope,” she says, stressing that until this point the ballot envelope has remained sealed at all times.
“They take the ballot out and put it into a container and put the opened envelope into a different container. The board generally processes approximately 400-600 absentee ballots in a matter of a few hours.”
A judge will then feed the ballots through the election tabulator. Each ballot falls into a bin, which is sealed until every ballot has been scanned.
The scanner keeps a running count of the ballots as they are scanned, which must match the number of envelopes delivered to the board by the county clerk. This, in turn, must match the number of absentees received into the statewide voting system and the number of absentees on the poll book.
When all ballots have been scanned, the judges run a report from the election tabulator, telling them how many ballots have been read by the machine. The grand total needs to match the poll book and must also match by individual district or precinct.
A seal on the door of the tabulator that stores the data card is then cut. The data card, poll book and voted ballots are sealed into a ballot bag and delivered to the county clerk along with a form signed by the counting board judges that lists the seal number put on the bag.
“At this time, a new group of election judges receives the sealed bag of ballots and the data card.” Fritz says.
The still-intact wire seal is then double checked by the receiving board of judges, county clerk and deputy clerk before it is cut and the contents removed. The data card is inserted into a computer that cannot be hooked to a network or the internet, known as a “hardened computer”. The poll book and the printed tally tape from the tabulator used by the absentee board are compared to the printed report from the computer.
The vote count per district and precinct and the grand total need to now match the poll book, printed tape and the report printed from the election software computer.
“The ballots remain in the bag and are locked at the end of the night in a closet that is then sealed with a wire seal and verified by all judges working on election night in the clerks’ office as well as the office staff,” says Fritz. “They remain locked until a different set of judges arrive the next morning to count the write-ins. But, that is yet another process.”
During an election year, says Fritz, around 65 election judges are appointed to serve.
“They are your neighbors, your friends, registered voters and they represent all major parties. They are trained by the county clerk on how to perform their duties. They are dedicated public servants and their service is deeply appreciated by me for without them, elections would not be possible,” Fritz says.
“We are all the ‘boots on the ground’ that make elections happen with a high amount of integrity so that the registered voters can exercise their constitutional right to vote.”