Gehrke: Why are we waiting so long for Utah’s election results? Counting ballots is more complicated than you might think.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "It's fun. … I enjoy it," said Salt Lake County elections official Diane McGee of the eight-hour days of inspecting ballots at the Salt Lake County building, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018.

Good news, folks. My ballot was counted.

It was touch-and-go there for a while because:

1. I didn’t follow directions and filled it out in pencil instead of blue or black ink.

2. I am dumb.

Still, a check of the state elections website shows, sure enough, it got counted, and I like to think it canceled out the vote of House Speaker Greg Hughes or someone like that.

This tallying of the outstanding votes has been an arduous process, one we’d all like to see finished — none more so than Mia Love and Ben McAdams and their campaigns.

But in our breakneck-paced, high-tech, open-your-presents-on-Christmas-Eve world, let’s take this opportunity to learn something about the value of patience.

“Vote-by-mail is just much slower,” Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the state’s chief elections officer, tweeted Tuesday evening as results were trickling in. “Other [vote-by-mail] states are very similar. We are used to election night results, but we have to reset those expectations.”

We need to recalibrate, partly because screaming at your computer and hitting refresh 8 million times won’t make the results come in any quicker.

I tried that.

Mostly, however, it’s because our county clerks are doing their absolute best to handle a gargantuan and labor-intensive task.

Think about how we used to vote — popping into a polling place, punching in our choices on the voting machine and getting a sticker. The data stored on the memory cards were then dumped into computers and the results reported, for the most part, that same night.

Now, because of mail-in balloting, consider the journey the most important little ballot in the state — mine — had to take just to get counted.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

When it arrived at the Salt Lake County Clerk’s office, the barcode on the outside of the ballot was scanned to log that it had been received. The paper covering the signature on the envelope was removed and the signature underneath verified against the signature on file.

About 10 percent of the signatures can be digitally verified, but the rest have to be verified by humans.

If the signatures don’t match for whatever reason, they get set aside and a pair of adjudicators look at each one based on a set of handwriting criteria to decide whether it can be counted. For signatures that don’t match, voters get postcards asking them to verify their identities.

If the signatures do match, then the envelope is sliced open, the ballot removed and the ballots are inspected, unfolded to make sure they aren’t damaged or somehow spoiled with extraneous marks.

Ballots that are in good shape get shipped upstairs and run through an optical scanner that looks a lot like the feeder on a copy machine, only it’s tallying votes that then get reported to the state elections office.

That’s what happened to my ballot.

But then there are provisionals, which are even more complicated.

This year, Utah voters could show up and — provided they had identification and address verification (think a power bill) — could register right at the polls and cast their ballots. As a result, we saw a huge surge in the number of provisional ballots cast, close to 55,000 statewide.

Each one of those forms has to be manually entered into the state’s voter database to make sure the voter isn’t registered somewhere else and is eligible to vote. It’s a data entry nightmare.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said more than half of the 16,353 provisional ballots cast in Salt Lake County were same-day registrants. Her office hopes to have the data entry done by Thursday and the counting completed by Saturday.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake County elections official Franco Arellano tabulates votes from ballots, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, at the Salt Lake County building.

Swensen’s office has been working 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., she said. Staffers worked Saturday and Monday (Veterans Day) processing ballots so they can make their deadline.

By law, a final report (the canvass, as it’s called) has to be finished by next Tuesday.

“Honestly, a two-week canvassing period is just horrendous for us,” Swensen said. California, by comparison, has 30 days to finish its counts and, by the way, has four congressional seats that are still hanging in the balance.

So why did Utah — not to mention 22 other states — ever choose to vote by mail in the first place?

Well, it can save money, since counties have to pay to staff fewer polling places. There is a convenience factor for voters, who can spend time researching issues rather than being surprised at the polling place.

But the biggest reason is turnout. So far, nearly 950,000 ballots have been counted, and that number will eclipse 1 million by the time we’re through. In the 2014 midterm, the total votes cast were about 578,000. Obviously that has a lot to do with the races on the ballot, but mail-in voting makes it easier.

Despite the hassles on the back end, Swensen wouldn’t go back to the old Election Day voting.

“Not for the sake of voters, no. Not even,” she said. “The turnout has been better, it’s so much more convenient, and I think it’s worth it.”

Swensen is right. Sure, we lose the instant gratification of election night, but in the long run this is better for democracy — and that’s what it’s all about.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune "It's fun. … I enjoy it," said Salt Lake County elections official Diane McGee of the eight-hour days of inspecting ballots at the Salt Lake County building, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018.