Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How the Absentee Ballot Process Will Work

We asked the Montgomery County Board of Elections how tomorrow’s absentee ballot count will work. Here’s what they said.

The board issued 1,195 absentee ballots in this special election. So far, 773 of them have been returned. The board will continue to receive more absentee ballots provided that they are postmarked by election day (April 21) and come in by 10 AM on May 1, the day of the second canvass.

The board’s staff is preparing for the first canvass today. They are sorting out the returned absentee ballots by precinct. Tomorrow, the first canvass will begin at 12:30 PM. A series of tables will be set up in a conference room, each having sets of manila envelopes containing the ballots from each precinct. A Democrat and a Republican volunteer, both of whom have been trained for ballot review, will examine each ballot at each table.

The first step in the ballot examination involves examining each envelope prior to its being opened. The volunteers will check on whether each envelope is (a) postmarked by April 21, and (b) has a signed oath on the exterior. If any unopened ballot fails either test, it will be put into a “reject” pile.” The second step is to open any ballots that pass the first test. The volunteers will check to see that each ballot has one filled-in oval that can be read by the board’s optical scanner. If the ballot has a rip, tear or illegal marks (like check marks), the volunteers will prepare a duplicate scan-able ballot that reflects the intent of the voter.

Once these steps are completed, the three sets of ballots face different fates. All of the ones that make it past the volunteers and are properly completed will be tabulated by the optical scanner. The ones that required duplicate ballots will be examined by the Board of Elections itself, who will look at both the original and the duplicate to make sure that the duplicate truly does reflect the will of the voter. Those duplicates that do will be fed into the optical scanner. (The originals will not.) The reject pile must be considered by the Board of Elections on advice of its legal counsel. It is probably unlikely that the board will vote to accept any unopened ballots that lack either a timely postmark or a signed oath.

The campaigns have little role in this stage of the process. They can observe but they cannot approach the tables where the ballots are examined. They cannot challenge or handle the ballots themselves.

The first canvass should be completed by the close of business tomorrow. There are also 86 provisional ballots that will be processed on Monday. The second canvass will take place on May 1. Election-day vote counts by precinct may be available by Friday. The County Board of Elections will certify the results on May 1 and the State Board of Elections will certify them on May 4.

In last year’s special election, 7,434 Democratic primary votes were cast at the precincts, 183 absentee ballots were received by the first canvass, 30 provisional votes were recorded and 11 absentee ballots were received by the second canvass. This year, 7,987 Democratic primary votes were cast at the precincts, so the number of absentee ballots has gone way up relative to election night. That is probably because both the Kramer and Navarro campaigns distributed pre-printed absentee ballot applications.

So we may know the winner by tomorrow afternoon. Unless we don’t.