How are mail-in ballots counted?

  • Sabrina Bodon / The Garden Island

    Volunteer Camryn Calderon sorts through ballots Tuesday morning.

  • Sabrina Bodon / The Garden Island

    Manny Garcia (center) ensures ballots are sorted through a high-speed scanner without issue. Michelle Panoke and Jacob Matthews watch on.

LIHU‘E — Eight volunteers sit about six feet apart at desks with stacks of envelopes in front of them on Tuesday morning.

Carefully, each person removes the contents from the envelopes, establishing two new piles. Eventually, those envelopes will be opened, too, scanned then locked away. But these volunteers aren’t just sorting through some mail; they’re ensuring your vote gets counted in Hawai‘i’s first mail-in election.

Kaua‘i volunteers have sorted about 12,000 primary election ballots in the tightly locked-up basement of the Elections Office since they started early last week. Over 40,000 registered voters received their paper ballots in late July, and these volunteers are moving fast to get everything counted before the Aug. 8 Primary Election.

Once a ballot received by the county’s Election Division, signatures are compared and verified to past records, most recently to those from this spring, when signature cards were mailed to voters. If there’s an issue here, staff contacts the voter to verify.

The still-sealed envelopes get run through a mechanical letter opener, and volunteers are given the envelopes to remove the green secrecy sleeve that contains the ballot from the signature envelope.

Once complete, another volunteer takes the pile of signature envelopes and places those inside of a large box to be sent to the state. Under federal law, the state must keep these records for 22 months.

Now that all identifying information has been taken away, volunteers remove the ballots from the secrecy sleeve. Volunteers sign non-disclosure agreements prohibiting their ability to discuss what they see, notice and do.

Lyndon Yoshioka is the elections administrator with the Office of the County Clerk. He oversees the process, and he’s not alone. Observers in bright orange shirts are selected by local political parties. They’re given the official election handbook and sign off on certain parts of the chain of custody process.

“They act as the eyes and ears for the public,” Yoshioka said.

Once the ballots are free from the secrecy sleeves, they are placed in their own cardboard box labeled by district to have its weight recorded. Weighing the boxes gives an approximate amount of how many ballots are inside of the box, another layer of security.

“Everything that happens in here is about chain of custody so we can understand what happened when,” Yoshioka said. Each step in the process is cataloged in spreadsheets denoting what time, where the ballots were and who handled them.

Two official observers watch as the ballots are fed through a high-speed scanner with two employees of a Texas-based vendor. The ballots are fed through in smaller batches, usually upwards of 100 at a time. The process to clear a box can take about a half-hour.

The scanner is essentially taking a picture of the ballot and notifying the observers of any errors. This could be somebody voting too many times in a race or across party lines, for example. Although the ballots are scanned, they are not counted. The software to tally up the votes will not be installed on the machines until election night.

After the scanning, ballots are placed back into the district-marked box, sealed with a unique tag and placed into the vault with a card indicating who oversaw the sealing.

“Everything is really scripted,” Yoshioka said.

Eighteen-year-old volunteer Camryn Calderon sits at a desk opening ballots. She’s volunteering with her mom. She, along with the other volunteers, should be wrapped around lunchtime.

Yoshioka said the process has gone smoothly, and a little faster than he anticipated.

“They’re so efficient,” Yoshioka said.

Voters can vote in person at the Voter Service Center in conference rooms A/B of the Pi‘ikoi Building every day through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. On Saturday, the center will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

And as for mail-in ballots, since the primary is only a few days away, it’s suggested voters drop their ballots off at a secure location rather than risking it’ll arrive in time by mail. Dropboxes are located at the Hanalei Fire Station Flag Pole, Kapa‘a Fire Station, Kalaheo Fire Station, and the Hanapepe Fire Station.

The stainless steel drop boxes are accessible 24 hours a day and will be open until 7 p.m. on Saturday. All ballots must be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day to be counted.

Votes by dropbox are collected daily, and the process starts all over again with these same volunteers.

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Sabrina Bodon, public safety and government reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or sbodon@thegardenisland.com.

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