Election Day's aftermath: Counting the final ballots one by one
Here we are, nearly two weeks out from Election Day, all the balloons have shriveled and sunk and the confetti has been swept away, and yet the ballots are still being counted, and the results of some races still potentially hang in the balance.
It is a source of frustration in some circles. How is it that in this age of technology we don't have official results?
The answer can be observed in county clerk's offices around the state.
In Salt Lake County, 30 staffers and temporary workers are clicking away on laptops, hundreds of provisional ballots piled around them, checking and double-checking the names, addresses, even birth dates and the last four digits of Social Security numbers against the state voter database. They're doing whatever they can to try to make sure the ballot, if it can be counted, gets tallied.
With the deadline for reporting the official totals looming Tuesday, they have been working 12-hour shifts trying to get through the roughly 18,000 provisional ballots cast by voters who didn't have their identification on Election Day or weren't registered at their new address.
Add to that about 25,000 absentee ballots that were postmarked before Election Day and are still rolling into the clerk's office five more arrived on Friday. On each one the signature has to be verified against the signature in the state voter-registration database and the envelopes open and counted.
Each ballot takes about five to 10 minutes of work to verify.
"We go to a lot of extra work just to make sure we give everyone credit we could," said Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen. "We had over 43,000 ballots to be processed. We've been working extremely hard."
The ballots that poured into Swensen's office on Election Day filled 37 white plastic postal trays. By Friday, just a few trays with provisional ballots that couldn't be verified on a first pass were awaiting a final check.
Enough provisional ballots to fill about three trays were set aside, unable to be counted, either because the information on the front was incomplete, they weren't signed or they were cast in the wrong county.
The rest of the ballots get manually scanned and recorded on a memory card to be added to the final tally.
"As tedious as it is, it's such a good thing that people get another opportunity to vote and to get their vote counted," Swensen said.
Other counties are going through the same exercise. In Utah County, for example, more than 27,000 ballots needed to be counted after Election Day.
Thad Hall, a political science professor at the University of Utah who studies elections administration, said that clerks today essentially run four separate elections one for absentee voting, a second for early voting, a third for provisional votes and finally the normal Election Day voting. Each has different demands and add to the burden on elections officials, who find themselves under more scrutiny since the contested 2000 presidential race in Florida.
"What we're asking election officials today to do is run multiple elections and then audit them all and make sure they're counted right and that process just takes time," he said.
"A good election requires a little bit of patience," he said. "We just have to be a little patient to make sure we get it right because it's better to be patient and get it right than hurry and do it wrong."
In Salt Lake County, a few races could still turn on the outcome of the vote counts. The highest-profile one is the 4th Congressional District race, in which Rep. Jim Matheson leads Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love by a slim 2,646-vote margin.
It is impossible to know how many of the votes Swensen's team is counting are in the 4th District, but 54 percent of those cast on Election Day were in that hotly contested race, which would translate to more than 23,000 votes.
Rep. Larry Wiley, D-West Valley City, leads his challenger Fred Johnson by 163 votes of the roughly 6,700 counted so far a tally that could also potentially change.
"The two weeks after the election, for us, is a lot harder," said Rozan Mitchell, election director with Salt Lake County, who said she's looking forward to spending lots of time with her new granddaughter when the work is done.
Mitchell put on the best face possible when she broke the news to election workers Friday evening.
"On Monday, let's plan on [working] 7 a.m. until we're done," she said. The good news, she said, was that they got the weekend off.
Counting the vote
Nov. 6 Election Day • Unofficial results are released after the polls close and as ballots are being counted.
Nov. 20 County canvass • County clerks certify the votes in their county and county councils or commissions approve the tally.
Nov. 26 State canvass • State elections official certify the final, official election results.