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Already, Fresno County has a record number of ballots turned in by mail, drop box or early in-person voting.

Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth says the ballots are secure in the election department’s warehouse, waiting to be counted. The process to sort and scan has already started.

Early voting has exceeded the mail-in total from the November 2016 presidential election. Through Friday, more than 200,000 Fresno County voters have cast ballots either in person, or returning from drop boxes or the mail.

“Those numbers will continue to grow,” Orth said.

In-person vote centers and official Fresno County ballot drop boxes are open at locations across Fresno County through 8 p.m. on Tuesday.

Orth said her team will begin counting ballots as soon as voting ends. Whether enough votes will be tabulated to determine who wins on Election Night is best left for others to interpret, Orth said.

Kings County Registrar of Voters Lupe Villa said he will do his best.

“The ballots that we get in my department will be processed as expedient as possible to ensure that we’ve released numbers that are accurate and make our public and our voters comfortable knowing what the results are going to be,” Villa said.

Cox-Valadao Could Go to the Wire Again

In 2018, David Valadao ended Election Night with an approximately 5,000 vote lead over TJ Cox for the 21st Congressional District. More than three weeks later, Cox declared victory, eventually winning by 862 votes.

This year, the race is expected to be just as close. And it could take just as long for ballots to come in.

The district spans four counties.  A recent count of registered voters within the district (through Thursday) show Kern with 108,014 or 42% of the district; Fresno 82,626/32%, Kings 60,100/23% and Tulare 8,378/3%.

This year, a new election rule allows for ballots received up to 17 days after Election Day to be counted as long as they are postmarked by Tuesday. That means ballots can still arrive in election offices by Nov. 20. The U.S. Postal Service says they will collect ballots at the posted times on collection boxes on Tuesday, not at the 8 p.m. end of polling.

Orth said she tracks how many ballots remain overall, but doesn’t keep tabs of where they would come from.

“We don’t do any sort of additional sorting that would delay the process or slow down the process. We’re looking to get the ballots through the system accurately,” Orth said.

Other services, such as Political Data, Inc. do keep tabs of where ballots come from and how many remain. Through Thursday, they estimate 31% of ballot have been returned so far. While Republicans have had a higher response rate thus far over Democrats (35% to 34%). By raw number, 13,000 more Democrats have voted thus far.

That is because Democrats have 44% to 27% registration advantage over Republicans in Congressional District 21.

Both Campaigns Showing Confidence

Cox’s campaign is confident turnout numbers will be in his favor.

“We all know when turnout is high, Democrats win. And turnout, so far, is high,” said Cox’s campaign manager Amanda Sands by email. “Voters are sending TJ Cox back to Congress because they’re looking for real results, and they know he is a warrior for the working families of the Central Valley. It will take some time for every ballot to come in, but we’ll be fighting to make sure every vote is counted and every voice is heard.”

Valadao’s campaign trusts the process.

“We’ve always expected this to be a close race from the day David announced he was running and that hasn’t changed now that we are less than a week from election day,” Valadao campaign manager Andrew Renteria said via email. “California has a long history of securely and accurately counting ballots, even if that means there is no winner declared on election day, which is often the case. We have faith in our local election officials to do that again this year.”

Checking Signatures Starts the Counting Process

Orth said the first thing they do when collecting ballots from either the 64 drop boxes in the county collected daily —  or from the mail is to check signatures.

We put it through some equipment just to capture your signature on your return envelope electronically. And it’s the same software that is used by the banking industry,” Orth said.

If the computer cannot verify to the signature already on file, staff specifically trained in handwriting analysis will take a look.

“A lot of them are accepted as soon as you put human eyes on it,” Orth said.

In Kings County, they do not have a machine to inspect signatures.

We have human eyes that do that for us,” Villa said.

If there is still a problem, such as a mismatched signature or forgetting to sign the ballot completely, the county will send the voter a letter by Nov. 25 giving instructions on to cure the problem.

The voter has until Dec. 1 — two days before election certification — to fix the problem and have their vote counted.

Ballot Counting Starts Shortly After Polls Close

Because of a COVID-19 related law, returned ballots can be scanned into computers prior to the 8 p.m. close of voting. Those computers, though are not connected to the internet.

Villa said he plans to start scanning ballots already received in Kings County.

It starts with a machine opening the envelopes and separating the ballots.

“The envelopes are opened in an L-shape. It opens the side and the top of the envelope. The envelope then starts going through a small conveyor belt. There’s two suction cups that open the envelope and just pull the ballot out,” Villa explained.

“We flatten the ballot and we make sure they’re nice and firm and then we run them through the tabulator,” Villa said.

Villa expects that other county employees will help tabulate ballots to meet demand.

All of Kings County falls within Congressional District 21. Villa’s goal is to have only late-arriving mailed ballots, as well as conditional and provisional ballots left to count after Tuesday.

Fresno County uses a similar system. After signatures are verified, the envelopes are placed into a shaker to make sure the ballot inside is in the correct corner.

The envelopes are then opened by machine. The ballots are then unfolded by hand, flattened in a vice-like machine for at least 30 minutes, and boxed up, 250 at a time. The boxes receive a green seal meaning they are ready to be scanned.

The boxes are then taken to a secure room, where only five election employees have access, including Orth.

A staff member scans the ballots in to record information, but not the results. Any questionable ballots — because a bubble isn’t filled in correctly or a write-in candidate cannot be read properly — is reviewed by staff. They determine the will of the voter and update the computer to reflect the vote.

The information is stored on flash drives, and uploaded onto another server to be tabulated after 8 p.m. on Tuesday when the election officially closes.

Ballot Counting Slideshow

Expected Order of Counting

Ballots collected through Monday will be some of the first votes counted in Fresno County, Orth said. Day-of voting center totals will be added in as they arrive.

Mail-in and drop box ballots received on Tuesday are likely to be processed starting Wednesday.

Orth said the scanning machines can handle up to 3,000 ballots an hour. Fresno County has six scanners.

“It’s a pretty fast process,” Orth said. “I would like for Election Night to have as many votes as possible pushed out there for the public.”

Ballots cast at voting centers are stored on a flash drive. They will be transported to Fresno County’s central warehouse after the polls are closed, where they will be uploaded to its tabulation machines.

Election employees won’t call it a night until at least all in-person voting center ballots are tabulated. Orth says they will keep in contact with the Secretary of State throughout the night.

The county will begin posting updates from outstanding ballots starting Wednesday morning.

Villa also plans to process all ballots cast on Election Night. He anticipates all the mail-in ballots received by then to counted as well. So far, about one-third of the county’s 60,000 voters have returned ballots.

Kings County will use six polling centers and eight drop boxes.

Both counties will utilize social distancing and cleaning procedures at its polling locations.

Ballots from voters who registered after the first deadline of Oct. 19 could take extra time to verify and process.

County Leaves It Up to Third Parties to Crunch Numbers

While each ballot could be traced to a specific person — but not how that person voted — the county does not analyze the data.

That is left to third-party services such as Political Data, Inc. which crunches the number to determine who has voted and demographics such as age, race, and party.

“Companies like that do purchase the data and then do this sort of analyses,” Orth said.

The price to crunch such data — fifty cents per 1,000 pages. For records of all 481,000 registered Fresno County voters, that would be $240.50.

The Dead Can Vote

Will a ballot still count if a voter dies after turning in a ballot early?

“If they’ve already cast their ballot and we received notification after that they died, it’s fine because they cast it when they were alive,” Orth said.

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