New elections equipment is shortening the amount of time and people it takes to process ballots, meaning people should be able to expect results more quickly during Tuesday’s municipal primary than in the past.
The municipal primary is the first election under a new Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers, who has obtained new equipment in preparation for the highly-anticipated presidential election next year.
One machine, which Utah County elections director Rozan Mitchell called “life-changing,” can process up to 15,000 ballots per hour.
“The process we went through prior to getting this machine took several staff and temporary employees hours — even days — to do,” Mitchell said. “Now we just do it in a matter of minutes.”
Elections staff feed stacks of ballot envelopes into the machine, which processes them rapid-fire into waiting, color coded baskets. If there’s something wrong with a ballot, like the machine couldn’t read its bar code, or the voter didn’t sign the outside, they’ll drop it into a red box.
The machine uses high-speed scanners to scan the signatures on the outside of the ballots, making sure the signatures match. The machine so far is auto-verifying about 25% of signatures with the signatures the county has on file, saving time on a process that used to be done manually.
The remaining 75% of ballot signatures have to be verified by elections staff, but the machine speeds up that process as well. After it scans the signature, it will automatically appear on a screen next to a photo of the signature the county has on file for that voter. Staff can then go through and compare signatures, either approving the ones that match or set them aside for more research.
Before the machine, Mitchell said everything was done by hand scanners, and staff had to take a tray of ballots and scan each bar code individually, before passing them off to the next team who, with a ballot in front of them, would look up the voter in the system to check the signature to make sure it matched.
While it’s still too early to know exactly how much time this process is saving, Deputy Clerk/Auditor Josh Daniels said current estimates have the process taking about a quarter of the time it used to.
Once signatures are verified for the ballots, they’re put through the machine again. This time, with signatures verified, they should be processed into a green bin meaning they’re ready to be opened.
Ballots that reach this stage of the process then head to ballot-opening machines, the second in a line of new time-saving equipment. Before, Mitchell said ballots were opened manually with letter openers.
The machines quickly open the ballots, which are then manually unfolded and put through a scanner in batches.
The scanners, also new this year, can both process 300 ballots per minute, which is three times faster than the old scanners, Daniels said.
County staff is already seeing the benefits of this system, Daniels said. In past years, elections staff have worked the Saturday before the election. By 5 p.m. Friday, the county was completely caught up on all the ballots received in the mail. Right now, there are about eight temporary election employees, whereas there would have been about 20 for the same-sized election in the past.
“They didn’t remember the last time they had the Saturday before an election off,” Mitchell said.
The increase in speed and efficiency is even more important with the 2020 presidential election looming. The county will need to be ready to process approximately 220,000 votes, including about 200,000 mail-in ballots, Daniels said.
“It’s a presidential election, so it still gets hectic,” Mitchell said. “It will definitely make us more efficient, faster at getting out our results and far more efficient at processing the ballots.”