The Pew Research Center released a poll several weeks ago that found 61% of people in the five states that regularly conduct elections by mail expected voting this year to be easy.
We can’t speak for any other state, but in Utah, which is one of those five, the percentage ought to be much higher.
We were given a tour this week of the ballot processing and counting center in Salt Lake County. Not every county in the state has the sophisticated equipment we saw, but then Salt Lake County has, by far, the largest population of any of the state’s 29 counties, and it has the organization to handle the more than 600,000 ballots it has sent out with ease.
The county’s system is orderly, allows for all contingencies and should instill confidence in anyone who submits a ballot this year. In addition, the county operates in-person polling centers, using machines that leave paper trails and are not connected to the internet.
Each ballot sent through the mail has a barcode that is unique for one specific voter. Once that has been returned and scanned by one of the machines we saw, that voter cannot vote again without being caught and subject to legal penalties.
No imposter could vote under someone else’s name or with that person’s barcode. Each mailed-in ballot must be signed, and each signature is compared, by computer, against other official signatures left by that person, including at the time he or she registered to vote. Whatever the computer can’t verify, people trained in the study of handwriting will examine. People whose ballots still are in question will be mailed an affidavit for verification.
Ballots with other irregularities are adjudicated by two adjudicators each — people who are hired after careful background checks and placed in different pairs each day.
Most ballots are tallied quickly by machines that leave computerized records for easy verification. Others are added in after adjudication. Machines sort the ballots by state senate districts, using the barcode information. This makes it easy to conduct quick recounts, if necessary, for any race on the ballot.
In addition, independent auditors pull random ballot samples after the election and compare the physical ballots with computerized results. Any interested party, including candidates, may witness this process, which takes place each day this week and until after the election, when all eligible ballots have been counted.
It’s democracy on the most sophisticated and personal level. County Clerk Sherrie Swensen is in charge of the big picture, and yet she told us she has been fielding calls this week from people concerned because ballots were scribbled on by toddlers or destroyed by pet cats.
The answer to these problems, by the way, is that the voter can return a spoiled ballot to the county for disposal and receive a new one, complete with a new unique barcode.
These details are important for Salt Lake County residents to understand. Those who live in other counties should contact their election clerks to see how they handle ballots. The beauty of elections in the United States is that they are conducted on local levels, by thousands of counties nationwide. Just remember that Utah has conducted elections mostly by mail for nearly a decade now without any significant problems.
In an election season where allegations of voter fraud and irregularities associated with mailed ballots or inadequate polling stations abound, rest assured that Utah knows how to make sure your ballot counts.