County elections staff Thursday were in the thick of the lengthiest task of the ballot tally — verifying and counting provisional ballots.
The ballots make up a fraction of all votes cast. But they take the most time to count because of the process required to verify them.
This year, a larger-than-normal number of Tuolumne County voters turned in provisional ballots — a little more than 1,300.
Not all of those will be counted in the final tally, as some will fail to pass muster. But even with the few pulled out, there will still be between three and four times the number of provisional ballots in a typical election, said Debi Bautista Russell, county clerk-auditor-controller and the registrar of voters.
“People were more energized and wanted to be part of the election,” she said theorizing on the bump in numbers.
Provisional ballots are distributed by the elections office and at polling places in cases where there’s been a mistake or error involving a ballot, polling place or address. The most typical reasons include a voter going to the wrong polling place or a recent name or address change.
“Let’s say you live up in Crystal Falls and you vote at the library,” Bautista Russell said as an example.
Those ballots are placed in pink envelopes to differentiate them from the blue and yellow envelopes for mail-in and polling place ballots.
This year, because of the higher-than-expected provisional count, Tuolumne County ran out of the pinks and had to use a few extra yellows and blues that were marked to make sure they were counted as provisionals.
After election night, the provisional ballots are gathered and separated into precinct areas for the lengthy verification process. Each one is checked by three election staff members, who look to make sure the person is registered, is not registered elsewhere and did not vote multiple times. Russell said they look at the names, dates of birth, addresses and voter registration info to make sure everyone is properly counted.
The vast majority of ballots that are disqualified are done so because the person was not registered to vote in the county on Election Day.
The verification process happens at a rate of around 15 to 20 ballots an hour, meaning the 1,000-plus provisional ballot count takes longer than counting the tens of thousands of ballots cast at the proper polling place or mailed in.
This year’s final election results likely won’t come out until at least next week, though only one local race — a bond measure for Summerville High — could be affected.
“You have to do it with every person,” she said. “I’m touching these a whole lot more, and you still need to do the other steps.”
Once verified and divided into precincts, the provisional ballots are opened and run through the voting machine. Elections offices in the state of California have 28 days to complete the process and certify the results.
And the process will likely be more complicated in the coming years as the state recently approved same-day registration. People who vote the day they register will likely be using provisional ballots, which will take longer to verify as elections workers around the state will have to await updated registration figures to make sure voters didn’t register in multiple spots.
Bautista Russell said Tuolumne County is a small enough place to handle the issues within the 28-day deadline, but she wonders how larger counties like Los Angeles will cope.
“That is going to be a bear,” she said. “It makes it a little harder to validate everything.”