Phil’s Notes October 5, 2020
Vote! This is the bedrock of a democracy. The outcome of the upcoming American election, as well as other elections around the world, will help determine when we can again feel confident exploring new corners of the world.
An election is an odd amalgamation of the micro and the macro. Each individual vote is a minute contribution to the whole, but together these votes determine who will lead us into the future.
For the upcoming election, I have the rare vantage point of being a small cog in the machinery that takes these millions of individual decisions and turns them into the results we are waiting to hear. During this lull in travel, I am working full-time for the Salt Lake County Election Office until election results are finalized. (Here is a big thank you to Trisha Moses, who is answering our HE Travel phones and emails and making sure we have a wonderful selection of tours for you in 2021.)
It is painful to read about efforts by elected officials in Texas, Pennsylvania, and other states to suppress votes. However, I am proud to work with colleagues here in Utah who are committed to ensuring that each vote matters. I believe that the same is true in nearly every county in the country, despite efforts by various voices in media and politics to cast doubt on the integrity of the process.
Each state and county writes its own election laws. As an example, the following are procedures being followed in Salt Lake County to let every voice be heard, witnessed from the inside.
Election mostly by mail:
- Utah’s largely Republican legislature laid the groundwork for mail-in elections back in 2013, long before mail-in voting became politicized
- After several smoothly run mail-in elections, there is no controversy about the process here in Utah
- Every registered voter in Utah will be mailed a ballot 21 days before Election Day
- Any ballot postmarked by November 2, the day before the election, or put in a drop box on Election Day, will be counted
- To avoid potentially long lines at polling places, voters are highly encouraged to return their ballots by mail, in person at County offices, or in one of many special drop boxes scattered around each county
- About 60 polling places will be opened in the county on Election Day, primarily to accommodate those who did not receive a ballot by mail and anyone who wishes to register on Election Day
- Larger venues (such as the Utah Jazz basketball arena) have been chosen to allow social distancing
- Stringent health measures have been established, such as plastic gloves and a single-use stylus for touching the screen to cast votes
- An expanded team of poll workers will manage the process to keep lines as short as possible (there were so many volunteers this year that many were turned away!)
- Only poll watchers that have been designated by parties can be inside the venue, and they can only observe without comment
- Every locality has strict rules about how close self-designated poll watchers and campaign workers can get to a polling place
- If there is the slightest hint of voter intimidation, the Sheriff’s Department is on call to respond
- Those who do vote in person can vote at any Salt Lake County location since the voter registration lists are now online (when paper voter lists were used, a voter could only vote in the location designated for their precinct)
Receipt of ballots:
- Every ballot envelope has a unique bar code that is registered when the envelope is received
- This ensures that each voter may only cast one ballot
- Ballots themselves are identical within each precinct, to protect voter privacy
- Voters can check online to make sure their ballot was received
- Machines take a photo of the signature on the envelope, open the outer envelope, and remove the ballot from its protective sleeve (upside down so the machine operator cannot see the votes)
- If a voter neglects to use a protective sleeve, the ballot is still counted (this is in contrast to Pennsylvania where some officials want to discard “naked ballots” that arrive without a sleeve)
Counting of ballots:
- The votes are counted by a machine as ballots are received, but the results cannot be seen until polls close on Election Day
- Since most mail-in ballots will be counted before Election Day, officials can announce reliable vote totals shortly after polls close
- If a ballot was postmarked on November 2 or earlier, it will be counted, even if it arrives a few days after Election Day
- If someone changes their mind after marking a ballot, it will still be counted if their intent is clear (such as crossing off the mistaken entry and circling the preferred choice)
- Signature verification is an important part of election security
- An optical scanning machine can match most ballot envelope signatures with those on-file for driver licenses and other official documents
- Teams of two people evaluate any that are not verified by the machine, and in most cases are able to accept ballots
- If a signature does not match or is missing altogether, the voter will be sent a “cure letter” allowing them to remedy the situation and have their ballot counted
- If handwriting matches, it doesn’t matter if someone included their middle name or not
- The system works well enough that in a typical year, less than 1% of voters are sent cure letters
- After Election Day there is a 2-week canvassing period
- Election staff work long hours to review every provisional ballot so that as many as possible are counted
- On November 17, final vote totals are presented to the state
- At that time, the state will certify the vote for each office, and finalize Presidential electors
An intricate dance goes on behind the scenes to securely count ballots. This is what makes democracy work! Here is a big Thank You to the election professionals around the United States and in every other democracy who ensure the integrity of our elections!
I am proud to be part of that team for this election … and a voter. Be sure to cast your vote!