First things first: Most votes don't get counted until Election Day. To be even more clear, those votes aren’t counted until the polls close that evening.
That includes all types of ballots cast during the election – mail-in ballots, in-person early voting ballots and Election Day ballots.
Early Voting Ballot Boards
If you're wondering who does the counting, it’s a group of people called the “early voting ballot board.”
Maria Jimenez has been a presiding judge of the ballot board in Travis County for a decade now. Even though “early voting” is in the group's title, she said, a lot of their work is focused on mail-in ballots.
That work starts the day after in-person early voting begins. Jimenez said the board then begins verifying the signatures on the envelopes mail-in ballots are returned in.
“We [make sure] the signature on the outside of the envelope matches the signature on the application that the voter has sent in,” she said.
In the past, staff would attach a copy of a voter’s application for ballot by mail to the returned ballot. “Now they copy it on a screen and it’s verified by the application,” Jimenez said.
And it’s not up to just one person to make sure there’s a match. Jimenez said ballot members work in pairs, so each signature gets looked at by two people.
“It’s a Republican and a Democrat,” she said. “And they have to agree that the signatures match.”
In-Person Early Voting
This is what ballot board members do throughout most of early voting to prepare for counting on election night. Of course, in-person voting is happening at the same time.
Yvonne Ramon is the elections administrator for Hidalgo County and the former president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators. She said each of the 254 counties in Texas gets to choose how people vote in person.
In the bigger counties, for example, voters cast their ballots on machines. These machines are known as DREs, or direct-recording electronic-voting machines.
“The votes are cast on the machine,” Ramon said. Then those votes go from the machines into a main system, where all the votes are held.
Individual counties can have different types of DREs. In Travis County, for example, there's a machine that was designed by the county clerk and a group of security experts. Ramon’s office in Hidalgo County uses different machines.
But the basics are pretty much the same.
The votes go from individual machines into another system, which Ramon says is known as “the controller” in her county.
“We ask our judge at the end of early vote, not to tabulate, but bring the controller to the office,” she said. “And then those votes of course are not touched until Election Day.”
Storing Votes Until Election Day
Ramon said for security reasons, voting machines do not get connected to the internet. Most of the voting data is stored on hardware like USB drives.
In the few counties that still use paper ballots, the ballots are often fed into a scanner and stored – along with the paper ballots. Again, votes are not counted until after the polls close on election night.
Scanning Mail Ballots
Later this month, Jimenez said, she and other board members will start preparing the mail-in ballots by removing the envelope with the voter’s signature.
“We can go ahead and actually start opening the ballots and separating them from the carrier envelope,” she said. “We separate that from the security envelope, so that no one knows how a voter has voted.”
Depending on where you live, the county might also start scanning the mail-in ballots. The totals get stored, Jimenez said, but no one knows what the vote totals are until election night.
That scanning also let's voters know their ballots have made it to the right place. Jimenez said the process just started in Travis County this election.
That’s pretty much all that happens until Election Day, when votes actually get counted.
For Jimenez, it’s a long day.
“We will start at ... 10 o’clock on Election Day,” she said. “We will continue verifying signatures, if we have new mail."
Board members go through the whole process again for ballots that arrive on Election Day: Verify the signature, separate the ballots from the envelopes and scan them.
“We put them in stacks of 50 so they can get scanned,” Jimenez said. “So that they are counted at 7 o’clock.”
Once the polls close, the vote totals are counted and tabulated. The early voting totals are always the first numbers the public sees.
“We also have to receive the result cards from all the polling locations for Election Day,” Jimenez said. “Normally the sheriffs bring them to us. And then we give them to the central count, so they can be read and get the results downloaded and released to the public.”
Everyone does this a little differently, too.
“We usually wait for four or five polling locations and we upload totals,” Ramon said. “And then we wait for the next grouping and we upload totals – until 100 percent of [polling locations] have uploaded totals, and we have what is called an unofficial end to Election Day.”
In Travis County, Jimenez said, ballot board members will continue working well into the morning to make sure all the mail-in ballots are counted, which might take a lot longer than usual this time around.
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