Election board keeps watchful eye

Group preps ballots for counting

Sharon Smith, left, checks ballot envelopes for precinct number while Carol Gagznos, right, readies the envelope opener on Tuesday to start the ballot counting process.

Photo by Emily Mentzer
Sharon Smith, left, checks ballot envelopes for precinct number while Carol Gagznos, right, readies the envelope opener on Tuesday to start the ballot counting process.

POLK COUNTY — Once a ballot is dropped in a box or the mail, it still has quite a journey to go on before the votes can be tallied.

Ballots are delivered to the Polk County Courthouse, where every signature is scanned and checked.

“We used to have a file of voter registration cards,” said County Clerk Val Unger.


Election 2014

Those cards are still used to check signatures, but now they are scanned into the computer. The bar code on the outside of the ballot envelope brings up the voter’s signature to verify it.

Tuesday morning, the three women who make up the election board arrived to begin the real work.

“Our job is to make sure the ballots are prepared for the machine properly,” said Nancy Allen, who has worked on the board for 12 years.

The outside envelopes are opened by machine. Allen, Carol Gagznos and Sharon Smith will work together to pull the secrecy envelopes out and remove the ballot.

“The faster you can do that, the faster the process goes,” Allen said. “I have a system so I can do it very fast. I think I could work an assembly line or something.”

Working with all that paper is not without some risk.

“We have a supply of Band-Aids there,” Gagznos said with a chuckle. “I’m one of the main ones that usually ends up with Band-Aids around my fingers (from paper cuts).”

Nothing from the ballots is thrown away. Envelopes are stacked in one pile, while ballots are put in another. Both piles are counted to ensure no ballot was accidentally kept in an envelope.

“We put them in batches of 25, so that helps (keep count),” Smith said. “If you’re off one, it’s usually because you put 26 in a pile. You can usually always find that extra one.”

Next, the election board workers check the ballots themselves to make sure everything is marked clearly.

“We all sit down and look at it together,” Allen said. “We try to determine what the voter’s intention was.”

Sometimes a voter will mark an X through one choice and fill in another, or write-in a candidate without filling in the bubble next to his or her name. Members of the election board may help make the choice more clear, always in a way that an auditor could distinguish between the voter’s original marks and the election board’s edits.

“If we cannot determine what the voter’s intention was, it goes to Val (Unger), and she makes the determination,” Allen said.

The actual hours they work depends on the voter turnout – how many and when ballots arrive.

“This last election (in May), we didn’t think it would be all that much and it turned out to be pretty good,” Smith said.

Typically, general elections – held in even years in November – have a higher voter turnout than those held in May, Unger said.

Four years ago, the last gubernatorial election, Polk County saw a 72 percent turnout, she said.

Unger will start running ballots through the machine that reads them on Thursday, but won’t tally any votes until Tuesday. In fact, the machine will not allow anyone to hit the “tally votes” button until Election Day.

“It’s an interesting process, with lots of checks and balances,” Unger said.

See For Yourself:

What: Election Board processing ballots.

When: Throughout the week until the last ballot is counted on Tuesday night.

Where: Clerk’s Office, Polk County Courthouse.

Of note: County Clerk Val Unger will not give tours of the office while ballots are being processed, but a split screen computer monitor will allow the public the chance to watch as ballots are checked, opened, counted and read by the machine.

For more information: www.co.polk.or.us/clerk.

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