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Why Did Ballots Take So Long to Count?

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After the unexpected passing of Mayor Ed Lee and the subsequent race to replace him, San Franciscans have endured a week without knowing who won. When election night finally ended, many people were astonished to see that the Department of Elections had a whopping 90,000 largely vote-by-mail ballots to count — with more expected to arrive.

The department’s machines kicked into high gear. As of Tuesday, the department still had only around 8,000 ballots to count.

Department of Elections Director John Arntz says about 70 department staffers have been dedicated to the factory-like work of efficiently and accurately counting ballots. It’s slower than usual; this is the first time its office won’t be open 24 hours a day to count ballots after Election Day.

“It’s just too much,” Arntz says regarding the previous election hours. “Certainly, we worry about people getting too tired.”

This year, some workers have come in at 6 a.m., some leave by 10 p.m., and the day goes in shifts. Fortunately, Arntz says, the work is mostly about shuffling the ballots through the machines and not making many actual decisions.

Down the hall, in the department’s east wing, ballots are scanned in a separate room to confirm that they’ve been received. Thanks to the barcode picking up voter ID and precinct number, voters are able to track their ballot online.

The scanner also takes a photo of the signature on the ballot, which staffers across that same hall examine in a computer lab. When a match is confirmed, the alert is sent back to the first room for the ballot to proceed. Challenged ballots are pulled aside.

Should signatures get verified, they join the rest of the ballots for a stage called “extraction.” Staffers seated along the main hallways don blue latex gloves, open the envelope, pull out the cardstock that indicates that voter’s decisions, and straighten out the folds so they don’t jam the machine and cause further delays.

Arntz emphasizes that each ballot has up to four cards to handle and run through a machine in that red-carpeted back room. Provisional ballots are saved for after vote-by-mail ballots are done, to ensure there is no double-voting by verifying voter registration and punching in each precinct number.

Once ballots are in the machine, the votes are tabulated fairly quickly and aggregated with the rest of the results. To make sure the votes are counted accurately, the department uses a 10-sided die to choose six random precincts to count by hand and match it to the machine’s results.

Once counted, ballots head to a warehouse at Pier 48 to be reconciled with the already-crunched number of ballots received, and they remain on standby should campaigns request a double-check to ensure they were sorted properly. The department is required to hold onto counted votes for 22 months after elections that include federal races (and just six months for off-year elections with purely local seats).

“That’s where it gets fun in a close contest,” Arntz says. “I expect it to happen this time around.”

Contested elections also attract dozens of voluntary observers, who are not required to be present while ballots are counted, but who are welcome as long as there is enough physical space. No observers whom SF Weekly approached wanted to divulge what brought them there — although some mentioned in passing conversation that they came from law firms or legislative offices.

Arntz confirmed that observers tend to be entrenched in the political machine. During the 2016 primaries, ardent Bernie Sanders supporters appeared, convinced the department was rigging results in Hillary Clinton’s favor.

In elections as close as this one, there’s a lesson to be learned about dropping off mail-in ballots on Election Day itself.

Voters confident in their choices ahead of time can have the satisfaction of filling out their ballot at home, dropping it off at City Hall early to avoid the lines, get an “I voted” sticker without delaying the final count, and know that they’re saving the Department of Elections time and money.

Then, maybe just maybe, we won’t be biting our nails for more than a week after the election while department staffers toil to get us the final results. In the meantime, ballots continue to be counted.

“That’s the life of a ballot,” Arntz says. “Every day, we’re just adding to the pile.”

Ida Mojadad is a staff writer at SF Weekly.
Imojadad@sfweekly.com | @idamoj

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Ida Mojadad

Ida Mojadad is the Staff Writer at SF Weekly. You can reach her at (415)-359-2728 or imojadad@sfweekly.com. Follow her on Twitter at @idamoj.

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