By Joyce Clare
Plumas County League of Women Voters member
I have taken democracy for granted until recently, and especially today, January 6, when an angry mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC to halt the certification of electoral votes. With the ongoing pandemic and the 2020 presidential election, my attention has become focused on world events as well as what elected officials are and are not doing in the United States. So in November, when Plumas County Clerk-Recorder Kathy Williams, invited members of the Plumas County’s League of Women Voters, of which I am a member, to observe the counting of the November 3, 2020 ballots, I jumped on the chance.
On November 3, I arrived at the election office at 3:30 pm not sure what to expect. I was greeted warmly by Kathy and her staff. For the next five hours, they explained the process each Plumas County ballot goes through to be counted, something I had had little more than a vague idea about. During the time I spent observing at the courthouse I witnessed the intricate detail they had explained to me.
Since 2016 Plumas County has used mail-in ballots exclusively. For the 2020 election 13,443 mail-in ballots were sent out to Plumas County registered voters on October 6. Kathy estimated that the expense of each ballot and mailing costs are approximately $5 per registered voter. That equals $67,215 for just the ballots and mailing. Elections are expensive! I had no idea.
Collection and Checking the Signatures
The processing and counting of the ballots are done in batches as the enveloped-ballots are received. For this election, Kathy explained, counting started on October 9 with ballots deposited in the outside courthouse drop-box or received by mail.
The attention to detail was precise: counting, recounting and recording of enveloped-ballots as they are being transferred from the outside drop-box into a locked bag. Records of these counts are kept. Then the envelopes are organized by the precinct where voters live. In Plumas County there are 29 precincts.
Next is the time-consuming task of comparing the outside signature of each enveloped-ballot to the computer record of each registered voter’s signature. If there is a discrepancy a clerk brings up further signature records and compares them on the computer. If this doesn’t satisfy the discerning eye of the staff member, the voter is contacted to have a current signature compared to their signed ballot-envelope. This ensures that the ballot is from the legitimate registered voter.
Next the envelopes, still organized by precincts, are counted again before they are transferred to the election room where the ballots are separated from the envelopes. There I observed four trained volunteers who are paid for their time and attention to detail. These individuals take each precinct’s envelopes and count them again to verify the number. Then each envelope is opened with signature-side down, to assure that a ballot is not associated with a voter’s name while separating the ballots from the envelopes. Finally, another counting is done to make sure that all ballots and envelopes are accounted for.
The ballots are next fed through a scanner using software specialized specifically for elections to read and tally the votes. The computer keeps an accumulative record of all ballots scanned for this election. After a batch of ballots is fed through the scanner, the computer will identify any ballots that have inappropriate marks. The volunteers then go through the process of adjudication. On the computer screen they review why the ballot was singled out, and they take the appropriate follow-up action.
Afterwards all envelopes and ballots are stored separately from one other, again organized by county precincts and held in a locked room. They are kept for 22 months after the election, when they are shredded. Up until shredding all ballots can be recounted if necessary.
Promptly at 8 p.m. November 3, the courthouse outside drop-box was emptied and locked. Then Election Coordinator Marcy DeMartile ran a report of the ballots that had been counted up to that time. With excitement Kathy was given a copy of the initial results to then email them to state election office and Plumas News. Ron Trumbo, the local Associated Press representative, was given a copy to email results to the AP. And the rest of us anxiously reviewed the initial results of elected candidates and winning propositions.
Even though the election was over there was still much work to do. This year Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered that mail-in ballots post-marked November 3 could be received and counted for 17 days after election day. So Kathy, staff and volunteers still had additional ballots to count. Then there is the process required of all counties by the state to test the accuracy of the ballot count. After that there is always the next election to prepare for…
What I had witnessed on November 3 was democracy taking place on a local level. I felt proud of the how Plumas County ran this election. From what I observed the election office and their staff are professional; they remain nonpartisan and are very helpful in enabling citizens to vote. They were transparent, democratic and fair. Their attention to ensuring that all ballots are counted is impressive.
This experience of witnessing the counting of the ballots did reinforce my belief that the right to voting is a privilege. Many people in the world do not have a say in who governs, nor any say in how laws are formed or resources are spent in their countries. Many countries do not run their elections in a fair manner. We do! Living in a democracy we have the ability to voice our individual opinions by voting. Even with the domestic attack on our democracy we continue on. And I will never take for granted our democracy again.