SLO County election office hard at work in advance of Tuesday’s primary

The life of a mail-in ballot at SLO County election office

More than 107,000 ballots were mailed to voters in San Luis Obispo County for the June 7 primary. Here's what happens when they're turned in to the county election office.
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More than 107,000 ballots were mailed to voters in San Luis Obispo County for the June 7 primary. Here's what happens when they're turned in to the county election office.

Three days before California’s June 7 primary, San Luis Obispo County’s election office had a decidedly mail room-like vibe.

At least a dozen staff members busily sorted envelopes, checked ballots and verified signatures on thousands of mail-in ballots, which can only be processed starting 10 days before an election. All mailed ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday and received by Friday to be counted, which means election staff has some work to do.

“It’s like planning a wedding, in a way,” said San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong of the pre-election process.

Voting by mail, also known as absentee voting, has become increasingly popular in California since the state’s Election Code changed in 2002 to allow residents to permanently opt-in, Gong said. Voters can now specify they want to receive all future ballots in the mail instead of requesting mail-in forms each year.

“It has dramatically changed the way we conduct elections,” Gong said.

A record 107,602 mail-in ballots were sent out to San Luis Obispo County voters for the primary — that’s 69 percent of the county’s 155,804 registered voters who have requested the ballots.

But what happens to mail-in ballots once they’re received? It turns out, there’s a multistep process for counting votes sent by mail that involves extra layers of verification and ends with ballots being sent through the same machines used to count votes cast in person on Election Day.

Ballots must be postmarked by Election Day and must be received by election staff during the three days following the election in order to be counted. Voters cutting it close should visit the post office and receive a stamped postmark to make the date clear to election staff, Gong said.

When ballots are received, staff check envelopes for the required signatures and to make sure none are “spoiled,” meaning the voter has checked a box requesting a new ballot.

The envelopes — 250 at a time — are then scanned through a machine that Gong called a “godsend.” It captures an image of the voter’s signature and sends it to a computer where a staff member then compares the signature on the envelope to the one in San Luis Obispo County’s voter registration record — a tedious process that would take even more time if completed by hand.

The still-enveloped ballots are then opened using a fast-moving machine. At which point, the envelopes containing the voters’ identities are separated from their ballots, retaining anonymity during the counting process, Gong said.

Election staff members then unfold the ballots and check for mistakes and write-in candidates. Finally, the ballots are scanned through the counting machines — although results aren’t tabulated until election night.

Residents who receive ballots in the mail can change their minds and vote at their polling places, but they have to either relinquish the ballot they received or vote via a provisional ballot, Gong said. Staff members check provisional ballots against their records later to ensure there’s no double voting.

The permanent vote-by-mail system allows election offices to plan in advance how many ballots they’ll need to send out, Gong said. Much of the work is done by a vendor, which “keeps the craziness out of the office.”

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Out of the 107,602 ballots mailed out, Gong said his staff had received just 46,000 mail-in ballots as of Saturday morning. He said he expected at least 2,000 more that day. Judging from past years, as many as 20,000 ballots could come in on Election Day.

“We could get more ballots received through the mail than ever before,” Gong said.

To check the status of your mailed ballot, visit http://clerk.slocounty.ca.gov/VoterStatus or call 805-781-5228. To find out more about the June 7 primary election, visit www.slocounty.ca.gov/clerk/Elections.