Have you ever wondered what happens to your mail ballot after you’ve returned it? Here, we walk through the process and explain some of the security and processing procedures that keep your ballot safe and make sure your voice is heard:
No matter how you return your ballot, it will stay secure. Dropping it off in a drop box? Many states that have drop boxes have 24/7 video surveillance, and even more have tamper-proof seals to ensure there’s no funny business. These drop boxes are routinely emptied by election officials. Sending in your ballot by mail or dropping it off at your county clerk’s office? Ballots are always securely stored in a government building and in many states are locked and under constant surveillance. Or maybe you’re in a state that allows you to drop it off at a polling place on election day or during early voting. Those ballot boxes are secure too: officials must fill out a log when they want to move the box of ballots.
When your ballot gets to the election office, it’s handled by trained election workers, some of whom are likely your friends and neighbors. Counting a mail ballot isn’t always the same as counting a ballot that is filled out in-person. Mail ballots have to be removed from their envelopes, checked to confirm they were filled out by the correct voter, and tallied. While that doesn’t sound like a lot, multiply doing those steps by a few million and you’ve got quite a task!
That’s why many states choose to begin to process mail ballots before election day. By starting these extra steps early, it not only dramatically reduces the amount of time it takes to count ballots after the election, but also gives voters more time to correct any issues with their ballots.
Ensuring Ballot Integrity
The most essential part of mail ballot processing is when election officials check the validity of the ballot. First, officials check to make sure that the envelope and ballot are authentic. One question we sometimes hear from voters is “how can we be certain that people don’t copy ballots?” Fortunately, lawmakers and election officials thought of that too. In addition to the visual inspection each ballot and envelope goes through, election officials use personalized barcodes and special paper to make sure ballots are incredibly difficult to fake.
Think of it this way: when you buy a ticket to a sporting event, the ticket is on a special card stock with hard-to-fake details and a barcode to scan upon entry. Even for tickets printed from the internet onto regular paper, you can’t make 100 copies of that ticket and sell them outside the arena: the barcode only works once. It’s the same thing with ballots: if anyone ever tried to illegally replicate a ballot, those ballot copies would only be worth the paper they’re printed on.
Once the election officials verify the ballot’s authenticity, they move onto making sure the ballot was voted by the correct person. In some states, this means checking that a ballot has been notarized and signed by witnesses. In others, this means checking the signature on the ballot with the signature in the state’s database (usually the signature from a voter registration application or a driver’s license).
Adding Up Ballots
After the polls close, your local or county officials will continue processing and counting the ballots. An important part of this process is that officials continually check the lists of voters who voted in-person against the mail ballots to make sure no one has attempted to vote twice. If they find any attempted double votes, the ballots are set aside and the person can be referred to law enforcement to be investigated and possibly charged with voter fraud. All valid ballots are then counted, usually by feeding them through scanners that determine which candidates were voted for.
Once this counting is done, election officials will review and certify the results. Then, a review of that review is done by state officials, most often your state’s Secretary of State or Board of Elections. Most states conduct an audit of the results to ensure their validity. Precincts, races, or even ballots are randomly selected to be re-counted. In some audits, known as Risk-Limiting Audits, counties use advanced statistical methods in order to get an even greater level of certainty. By “double certifying”, states have yet another level of security and confidence in the results of the election.
How do I know which stage my ballot is in?
Most states offer some form of ballot tracking, letting you as the voter see which step of the process your ballot is in: whether it has been received, counted, or whether an error has been detected. Even if your state doesn’t offer ballot tracking, they may still have an online way for you to see that your ballot arrived at your election officials’ office and is ready for counting. States vary in how advanced their tracking systems are, but some are truly phenomenal — for example, any voter in North Carolina can sign up to get text alerts when their ballot gets to a new stage in the process.
What if they find an error with my ballot?
Forgot to get a witness? Signed with shaky hands? In many states, this is no problem. You can “cure” whatever issues there are by coming in and fixing your ballot in person. In fact, in some states election officers contact voters directly when they find a correctable problem with their ballots.
What if election officials don’t get my ballot by election day?
Depending on your state, election officials will still accept ballots they receive after election day by mail if it’s been postmarked as sent on (or before) the day of the election. Each state has different timelines for what they’ll accept: some only accept ballots if they’re received one day after the election, while others accept postmarked ballots 17 days after the election.
As always, check with your local election officials for the most up to date and accurate information about when and where to return your ballot. You can find information on your local election at canivote.org!