Poll workers, inspectors ensure each vote counts
by Jon Mendelson
Nov 02, 2012 | 2426 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
STOCKTON — For many citizens, casting votes on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, begins with a drive to the polling place and ends when a secret ballot slides into a sealed box.

But for those trusted with protecting the democratic process in San Joaquin County, work began months ago and will continue long after polls close Tuesday.

According to Austin Erdman, registrar of voters for San Joaquin County, his office has been running the election “full blast” since candidates were allowed to file campaign papers July 16.

Erdman said his role in the general election won’t conclude until Dec. 4, at the end of the 28-day period when his office must certify the results.

Between then and Election Day, Erdman and an army of employees and volunteers work hard to ensure a tamper-free tally.

They make sure ballot boxes aren’t stuffed, ballots don’t go missing, machine votes add up, software remains unhacked and cast ballots are never alone with one person.

“There’s a lot of safeguards in place,” Erdman said.

Election Day preparation

The precautions ensure county voters aren’t disenfranchised, Erdman said.

This year, a record 293,004 out of 417,819 eligible voters in San Joaquin County registered to vote, Erdman said Tuesday, Oct. 30.

“That’s the biggest number we’ve ever had in San Joaquin County,” he said.

Of that group, about 175,000 chose to vote by mail instead of casting an in-person vote at a polling place.

“We’re seeing those numbers continue to rise, and it’s not just in San Joaquin County, it’s throughout the state of California,” Erdman said, adding that people tend to cite the convenience of voting by mail as a reason for abandoning in-person voting.

The first vote-by-mail ballots were sent out Oct. 9, Erdman said. Tuesday was the final day to apply for a mail-in ballot.

But the popularity of eschewing the polling place has not diminished the importance of Election Day.

“You still have those numbers of registered voters coming to the polls,” Erdman said.

To ensure the process goes smoothly, people like Ted Younessi have been busy explaining proper ballot-handling procedures to the estimated 2,000 people who will man polling places this year in San Joaquin County.

Younessi has worked for voting-machine maker Diebold and has contracted with San Joaquin County the past eight years to make sure ballots don’t go astray.

“You truly are the most integral part of this election,” he told seven prospective precinct inspectors at a Monday, Oct. 29, training session at the Cabral Agricultural Center south of Stockton.

Each inspector is in charge of one precinct, and each is responsible for collecting the unmarked ballots Saturday, Nov. 3, and delivering them to a precinct on Election Day.

Vaness Kuhlmann has volunteered during elections since she retired as El Dorado School principal in Stockton about 10 years ago. The Stockton resident said the system depends in part on the trustworthiness of the volunteers.

“There’s a certain amount of trust that goes with anything,” she said. “There’s an assumption there that you’re doing what you’re supposed to.”

But Erdman and Younessi explained that there are safeguards to make sure that trust is not abused.

“We have checks and balances that prevent people from doing what they shouldn’t,” Younessi said.

The big day

Perhaps the most visible protection against fraud happens at polling places at 7 a.m., when the first voter is asked to look inside the box where marked ballots will be placed to ensure it hasn’t been stuffed before Election Day.

After the empty box is secured and the first vote is made, it’s the job of each precinct inspector to track how many ballots are cast, wasted and unused and what types of ballot they are.

Inspectors are also charged with delegating duties at each precinct, including making sure every ballot makes it safely and secretly into the secure box.

“You are not to look at a voter’s ballot for any reason,” Younessi told his Tuesday class.

But Younessi, who is also a software professor at Akron University in Ohio, said he and his fellow trainers begin far earlier than Tuesday’s session, weeding out those who don’t pay attention to their training and dismissing repeat volunteers who made mistakes in previous elections.

“You’re only as good as your last election,” Younessi said.

Those who make the cut also pass a test and are given instructions to call Younessi at an Election Day hotline in case there is any confusion or crisis.

He said that when he first trained volunteers in San Joaquin County, there were more than 500 Election Day calls from polling places to the center. During the June primary, he said, the call count was below 200.

Once the polls close at 8 p.m. sharp, Younessi said the precinct inspectors take the ballots from the box and place them in another container that is then sealed and transported to a collection center — for ballots cast in Tracy and Mountain House, the parking lot of Tracy Motorsports off Naglee Road.

Younessi added that a second volunteer must observe the inspector during the transfer.

“We don’t want one person to be alone with the ballots,” he said.

Securing the vote

Even if there’s a breakdown at the polling place — if the ballot count doesn’t add up, for instance — Erdman said there are many layers of safeguards to prevent an improperly cast ballot from being counted.

“Post-election, we do an audit of every single polling place,” he said.

Each ballot, whether cast on an electronic machine or on paper, is counted and streamed into software that gives the registrar’s office a final vote count.

The registrar’s office sends the California Secretary of State a copy of the software program used to tally ballots.

One copy, Erdman said, is sent in weeks before the election, while the other is sent after the votes are counted. That way, state officials can see if anyone tried to tamper with the code that manages the counting software.

And for five days after an election is certified, a candidate can ask for a recount, by machine or by hand.

“Whatever the numbers are, they are at the end of the day,” Erdman said. “We verify that everything has been done correctly and that all votes that have been cast and counted (accounted for).”

Ensuring a safe election does not come cheap.

Erdman estimated that the Nov. 6 presidential election will cost the San Joaquin County general fund about $2.2 million.

“We don’t know what this election’s going to cost,” he said. “Until we’re done with everything, we really don’t know.”

• Contact Jon Mendelson at 830-4231 or jmendelson@tracypress.com.
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