This election season, the Riverside County Registrar of Voters (ROV) has made it a goal to demystify the election process.

“We’re here to provide you, your viewers and your readers a transparent look at the life of the ballot from the moment that the vote is cast here at a vote center,” Elizabeth Florer, public information officer, said during a Feb. 20 media tour of the ROV’s office. “From the ballot arriving here to the processing center to the stringent chain of custody that is followed to ensure each and every ballot is safe and counted accurately.”

And with just one day to go until Election Day, TN News is taking readers behind the scenes to better understand how the process works from the time voters get their ballot to the final certification of the results.

A woman casts a ballot at a mock vote center at the Registrar of Voters’ office. (Photo by Alicia Ramirez/TN News)

How to cast your ballot

Riverside County has made it easier than ever to participate in elections, sending all registered voters vote-by-mail ballots that can be filled out at the voter’s convenience, but that’s not the only way voters can cast their ballot.

“Our delivery has been that voters have options to cast their ballot and the method of how they return their ballot,” Alice Kim, chief deputy for the operations division, said during a Feb. 20 media tour of the ROV’s office. “One way is by mail, as we all know, and the other is to drop it off at any one of our drop-off locations, and then our third option is at the vote center.”

If a voter mismarked their ballot or otherwise damaged it, they should put it back in the envelope, mark it as spoiled, and call the ROV to learn more about their options for casting their vote.

For those that wish to vote at a vote center, there are multiple options for casting a ballot. When voters come into the vote center, they will be asked whether they want to mark a paper ballot or use a touchscreen device called an accessible voting unit (AVU), which prints out a paper ballot for processing with the voter’s selections filled in after they have voted.

Once the ballot is completed, voters will take it and either scan it into a ballot scanner or drop it into a ballot box without being scanned. If they choose to run it through the scanner, voters will be able to confirm their selections and the ballot will be loaded onto an SD card that will be transported to the ROV office for official counting.

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“It’s certainly something that you know, we would love for them to use, and it’s an option, but … there’s a ballot drop box in the very back,” Florer said. “So if they decide they don’t want to use the scanner, but they just want to put their ballot in [the ballot box] to be manually put through the process, it can go in [that] box right here.”

And while the date to register to vote has passed, those not registered can still vote through conditional voter registration, which allows voters to register and cast a ballot on the same day.

A full list of vote centers and ballot drop-off locations and times of operation can be found here on the ROV’s website.

Photo caption: Before dropping off a vote-by-mail ballot, voters should make sure they have signed the bottom of the envelope. If someone other than the voter is dropping off the ballot, the top of the envelope must also be filled out. (Photo by Alicia Ramirez/TN News)

What happens after you cast your ballot?

After voting, all ballots are delivered to the ROV’s office where they are securely stored in a locked room until they can be processed.

Mail-in ballots are first scanned through a machine that checks the barcode to ensure a voter has not voted more than once and scans an image of the ballot so staff can verify the voter’s signature. If the signature does not match, or the voter forgot to sign the back of the envelope, the ROV’s office will send a letter to the voter asking them to verify their signature.

If the signature matches, or the ROV’s office has received the signature verification form, the ballot is then removed from the envelope and prepared for processing in a ballot scanner. In the event the ballot scanner cannot read a ballot, for example if a mail-in ballot gets torn or is otherwise damaged prior to being sent to the ROV, staff will inspect and create a new ballot to ensure it’s counted as intended by the voter.

“So what they do is one person will read to the actual person sitting in front of the AVU and mark the ballot and vote it,” Leticia Flores, an election coordinator, said. “Once it’s printed out, they’ll switch and kind of go over the ballot once again just to confirm that they have the right ballot with the voter’s intention.”

Flores said this is a relatively common occurrence, and since the registrar’s office can no longer tie the ballot to the voter at that point, this is the only way they can ensure a voter’s ballot will be counted as intended.

Ballots that cannot be processed by the scanner due to damage are collected by elections workers who transfer the selections to a clean ballot using an accessible voting unit to ensure every ballot is counted. (Photo by Alicia Ramirez/TN News)

Counting the ballots

Once the ballots are ready to be counted, they are scanned by the tabulation machines and all votes are extracted from the ballots and saved until the ROV’s office is ready to certify the election results.

The county’s 10 ballot scanning machines, certified by the California Secretary of State, are able to process up to 90,000 ballots per hour.

“We had [a logic and accuracy testing] that’s the certification process that is deemed by the state,” Florer said. “So as soon as that happens, and everything is zeroed out, that room is secure, which is why we can’t go in there … because now everything is completely certified and sealed.”

Florer said that the machines used for tabulating, both the scanners and the laptops that do the actual tabulation, were not connected to the internet and that there was no mechanism in place that would even allow for that to happen.

Provisional ballots, such as those cast by voters who register when they go to cast their ballot, are researched and processed after the ROV has ensured they have not cast another ballot.

The scanners take a photo of each ballot. That image is then read by a laptop that tabulates the results of the election. (Photo by Alicia Ramirez/TN News)

Certifying the results

After all ballots postmarked by March 5 and received by March 12 have been counted, the county has 30 days to certify the results and the California Secretary of State has 38 days to certify election results — finalizing the results of the election.

As of March 4, the ROV has issued approximately 1.38 million vote-by-mail ballots — including supplemental voter registration and ballot reissues — with approximately 179,551 returned.

More information about the March 5 primary election can be found here on the ROV’s website, and a video showing the entire life of a ballot can be found here on the ROV’s YouTube channel.

TN News is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet providing Riverside County with high-quality journalism free of charge. We’re able to do this because of the generous donations of supporters like you!

Alicia Ramirez is the publisher of TN News and the founder and CEO of its parent company TN News.

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