The Uninteresting Reality of Absentee Ballot Counts

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I have spent most of my adult life around elections. When I worked in state party politics, I drew the short straw and spent nearly every election (state, local, or national) at the absentee ballot warehouse watching the ballot count on behalf of the Republican Party. I’d like to set the record straight on what does, and does not, go on there.

First, some background. The NM GOP operated under the impression that every election was tainted by Democrats stuffing ballot boxes. In their hearts they knew there is no way they could lose big races if they were fair. They talked about it openly. It didn't make it true, but that’s just how it was. Sound familiar?

Now, I was also in charge of the statewide voter file for the party and did the election analysis after every cycle. I knew the outcome of every election for more than a decade and actively looked for anomalies in the numbers. They just didn’t exist. That’s not to say no fraud happened. In New Mexico, nearly every cycle saw someone in Española go to jail for rigging an election — typically over a very small handful of votes.

So I can tell you from the outset of this that fraud DOES happen, but not at the scale or in the way that is alleged by the GOP.

The Absentee Warehouse

It’s important to set the scene for absentee ballot counts. They don’t normally take place in big convention centers. Typically they happen in dank warehouses in the industrial part of town. They typically don’t have great ventilation or lighting. They don’t have a lot of dining options nearby, so the volunteers working around the clock are poorly fed. They’re often the same warehouse where all of the machines used in the election are stored, so there may be hundreds or thousands of voting machines coming back from polling locations in the days following the election.

In short, they are ugly, uncomfortable, and generally crowded places.

The People

The volunteers that offer their time to count absentee ballots are not the folks you would usually find in a warehouse setting. Their average age is probably around 80. They are often people who have done this job for a decade or more. They are incredibly civic-minded. They are both Republican and Democrat. The woman who ran the Albuquerque absentee ballot location for many years was a cranky, but endearing woman named Lou Melvin. I loved her to death, but she was tough as a coffin nail when she ran her counts. She had also been doing that job for a VERY long time — under Republican and Democratic county clerks.

Her crew also took their job very seriously. Impugning the accuracy or honesty of their counts would not be taken well.

These people, due to limited county budgets, were paid VERY little — if at all — for their service. The county did not even provision water or snacks for people whose day started before polls opened at 7am and were often counting until 2 or 3 in the morning.

The Process

The absentee counting process itself is tedious and broken down into two phases: the initial, machine-assisted count, and a second, manual process to examine “hand tallies” or votes that were unreadable by the machine.

The initial count

Absentee/mail ballots are fed into the same voting machines that are used for other paper ballots. If you have ever voted by paper, where you walk up to the machine and slip your ballot in, you’ve done the same thing the ballot “counters” do. But they may be doing it hundreds of thousands of times.

The ballots they are counting are marked. There are no big stacks of empty ballots laying around just waiting to be cast. The process also typically involves two people, one from each party, attending to each machine. Even if there were stacks of empty ballots, the people running the machines would have no time to mark them. They are feeding ballots through as rapid fire as they can. They have a LOT of ballots to get through and want to get out of the dank warehouse as soon as possible and get home to their families. There were never people just hanging around waiting to add extra ballots. Everyone in the warehouse has a job to do.

The people feeding the machines have no idea, as the ballots are being fed through, what the count is by candidate. The machine may show a total number of cast votes, but they don’t give a running tally by which workers could know which ballots to stuff.

There is simply not an opportunity for someone to just inject ballots into this process. Even if they could, there are a LOT of teams — normally in the same area — doing the same thing and someone sitting around marking ballots for a candidate instead of feeding the machine would be noticed.

If a ballot cannot be read my the machine, it is rejected and placed in a tray to be hand counted.

The “Hand Tallies”

The rejected ballots are carried to tables where teams of counters work together in twos (a Democrat and a Republican) to examine the ballot. One of the two would typically read the votes as cast and the other would record the vote as declared. If you recall the image of the gentleman in Florida from 2000, with his glasses at the tip of his nose, staring at the ballot, this is normally where that particular photo-op happens. The process requires looking closely at a ballot and trying to ascertain voter intent.

This is really the single biggest point of trust and the only place where true fraud can easily happen.

If the person reading the ballot, for example, decided to call out votes for their party’s candidate, when the ballot actually said the other party, there would be nothing stopping that. At the same time, however, there would be nothing stopping the person who recorded the votes from doing the same. They could write down something different, but they have no way of ensuring what they were told was actually right.

In a weird way, it’s sort of the “mutually assured destruction” principle at work. You kind of trust that the person you are working with is as honest as you are.

The upside to this process being a single point of failure is that the number of hand tallies is normally very low.

The Final Count

When the machines have all been fed, they report out a total the same way the machines at the polling locations do. Those totals get added into the grand total. There is an audit trail that tells the county how many votes were cast by each machine. The machines produce receipts. The “hand tallies” generate a sheet of recorded votes that are tied back to a specific batch of ballots. It’s easy to compare the ballots that were counted to the total the team hands in.

The Harsh Reality

The simple reality is the absentee process is above board, but the count is actually very hard precisely because of the controls placed on it to ensure it is fair.

The people who are doing it take it very seriously — most have been doing it for a REALLY long time. Now imagine yourself at work and someone with no experience in your chosen career walks in and suggests you can’t do it competently — or worse, that you are purposefully doing it poorly to screw your employer. Would you get mad?

Like you, these folks bristle at suggestions that they are incapable of doing their job, or incapable of doing it fairly. And yet, cycle after cycle, they have to listen to people who are not familiar with — or even part of — the process suggest exactly that.

I will say one final thing. The one thing New Mexico always had trouble with was the simple act of getting an equal number of Republicans and Democrats to participate in the process. There were ALWAYS fewer Republicans willing to do the job. Vote counts could be done MUCH faster if Republicans had spent as much time volunteering to count as they did speculating about the fairness of the result.

I don’t know if that is true everywhere. Lou (may she rest in peace) was constantly asking for volunteers from the same cadre of people that loved to bitch about the outcome but had no interest in being a part of it.

To the people who gripe at every election about how long it takes to count or how unfair they think it is, put your time where your mouth is. Volunteer to join the team working the polls next year. Offer your services SPECIFICALLY to the absentee team. That’s how you can make a difference — not by screaming about fraud when you know NOTHING about which you speak.

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