Vote by Mail: Where does it come from and where does it end up?

04/29/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: vote by mail, absentee ballots, mail in ballots, Craig Latimer, Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections, Voting


Ballots from a previous election were printed to test machines before the Hillsborough County supervisor of election's office starts mailing out ballots later this year.

photo by Janelle Irwin

Ever wonder what happens to a mail in ballot after it’s dropped off at the post office? In Hillsborough County, that ballot gets shipped off to the Supervisor of Election’s office on Falkenburg Road where it’s passed through a giant machine that reads voters’ signatures.

“We then take a picture of that signature so we can compare it electronically so that we don’t have ballots all over the office and then after everything is verified, they’re then sorted into precinct order.”

Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer only counts accepted ballots. Ballots flagged with possible problems have to be evaluated by the canvassing board before being rejected. In the 2012 election when Hillsborough County voters mailed in more than 170,000 ballots, the number of rejections was very low.

“Less than 0.35% were rejected for any reason and the biggest reason for rejection was that they failed to sign the envelope entirely.”

And a process for fixing that problem is in the works for the upcoming election cycle.

“The legislature actually passed legislation that allows us to contact that voter and let them know that they failed to sign it. They can fill out an affidavit affirming that that is their ballot and that they failed to sign it and that ballot will be accepted.”

Even though vote by mail participation has become increasingly popular, some voters are still leery of placing their civic responsibility into a mailbox. To those people, Latimer suggests dropping the ballot off in person for a little added piece of mind. That can be done during early in-person voting. For the upcoming Primary that’s August 14-24. But Latimer says others still worry their signature could get rejected.

“We want them to have their most recent signatures on file. People’s signatures change over time so we want to make sure that they have their best signature on file with us.”

That can be done at libraries across the county or on the supervisor’s website.

Walls are lined with rack after rack that will be used to count votes when they start rolling in this August. But before those ballots even land in voters’ mailboxes, they start out at Latimer’s office. Until then, the cold room filled with machinery can churn out 20,000 ready-to-be-mailed ballots every day.

“And the first thing that happens is it goes through a code reader here, reads that code and we’re able to establish if there’s somebody in our system in that precinct that needs a mail in ballot.”

The machine then uses that database to get the ballots ready to be shipped out.

“The inserter side assembles however many ballots we have along with the secrecy sleeve and the instructions and a return envelope into a mailing envelope. It’s then barcoded and it’s addressed to who the recipient is going to be.”

After the ballots are stuffed and addressed, they move to the other side of the room where another machine processes them.

“The ballots, as they’re getting ready to go out, are sorted into zip code order so that we’re able to get a postal discount by zip code order.”

Latimer says the amount of that discount varies depending on current postal prices and the number of ballots being mailed. There are other savings too.

“Where we’re going to have anywhere from four to eight to twelve people that we’re paying to be at a polling site. Vote by mail, we don’t have that. We have the cost of the postage and the ballot and the envelope and the instructions. Yes, there’s some personnel costs to, but you can see today that it was a minimal amount of people that it took to run this machine.”

Voters can request a mail in ballot on the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections website. They can also call or go into any county election office.

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