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How will absentee ballots be counted? very carefully

Tennessee’s chief election officer saw a woman standing in an early voting line recently wearing a Trump T-shirt.

“I told her she couldn’t wear that shirt inside the polling place, and she’d have to leave, change shirts and come back,” said Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a Republican and former Memphian. “She wasn’t happy about it.”

A man in front of her offered to hold her place in line. “I couldn’t say for sure, but I would have guessed that he was not voting for President Trump,” Hargett said. “I see that sort of kindness and respect for the process everywhere.”

Hargett visited polling places in Morgan County Thursday, the last day of early voting. It was the 95th and final county he has visited this election year.

“I know how polarized we are, and how anxious people are about the voting process,” he said. “But the concerns people see on social media and cable news really doesn’t reflect what’s happening at the polls. The record numbers of early voters shows that people trust and respect the process.”

That process — a federal election run by the county according to rules set by the state — is being tested.

Tennessee residents have cast more early and absentee votes than ever before. By the time polls open at 7 a.m. on Election Day, a  opens in a new windowmajority of the registered voters in Shelby County and across the state already will have voted.

Election Day has become Election Season here and across the country.

Absentee, mail-in and early voting began in several states in early September. Twenty-two states (Mississippi, but not Arkansas or Tennessee) allow postmarked ballots to arrive after Election Day.

The expanding voting season has brought increasing apprehension about the reliability and integrity of the voting process itself.

The widening pandemic and a deeply polarized political climate have only heightened that anxiety.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Suzanne Thompson, a spokesperson for the Shelby County Election Commission. “This is what we live for. We want everyone to vote. It’s awesome and we’re ready, but we know voters are anxious. The system will be tested like never before.”

Absentee Anxieties

Sandra Brown Turner has cast a ballot in every presidential election since she became an eligible voter in 1972.

This year, because of concerns about COVID-19, she and her husband voted absentee for the first time.

“We are both over 65,” said Turner, a Memphian. “I know hundreds have died for the right to vote, but this is a different kind of threat. But we the people must honor that sacrifice and vote.”

Turner was eager to vote, but also anxious about it. She mailed her absentee ballot Oct. 5 and used the state’s online ballot tracker to verify its receipt Oct. 7.

“I voted early to make sure there was no discrepancies about receipt,” she said. “We also took photos of the completed ballot and the envelopes with the barcodes for verification. I am so concerned about everyone’s ballot being counted properly.”

So is the Shelby County Election Commission, which will begin counting absentee ballots when the polls open at 7 a.m. Tuesday. Absentee ballots still can be received by mail until 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Voters can take their absentee ballots to the Bartlett Post Office, 2966 Elmore Park Road, and mail them there no later than 3 p.m. Tuesday. That’s where the county election commission receives its mail.

“We don’t want voters to panic,” Thompson said. “And we never want to reject ballots, so everything possible is done to avoid that.”

A record number of Turner’s Shelby County neighbors have voted absentee this election — more than 23,000 as of Thursday evening. Four years ago, county residents cast 6,937 absentee ballots.

County and state election officials have made provisions to handle the deluge in the midst of the pandemic.

Absentee ballots received by mail before Tuesday will be counted inside the spacious FedExForum.

Counting tables will be spaced more than six feet apart. The two members of each counting team — one Democrat and one Republican — will wear masks and sit at opposite ends of each table.

The commission has enlisted and trained 120 teams to count absentee ballots. Four years ago, there were only half a dozen counting teams.

Hargett’s office helped local election officials  opens in a new windowtriple the number of scanners it can use to tally absentee ballots.

“Our goal is to have all absentee votes counted by sometime Tuesday evening,” Thompson said.

One hundred teams will be at FedExForum counting absentee ballots received before Election Day.

Another 20 teams will be at the election commission’s operations center on Nixon Drive counting absentee ballots received on Election Day.

Team members cannot have their cell phones with them nor leave the premises until all ballots are counted and posted.

When one member uses the restroom, a supervisor of the same political party will remain at the counting table until the team member returns.

Absentee ballots are kept in locked boxes until counting begins. Those boxes will be transferred to FedExForum on Monday but not opened until 7 a.m. Tuesday.

Ballots Triple-Checked

Each bipartisan counting team will receive a tote box with 50 absentee ballots at a time. The ballots are inside yellow envelopes. An official affidavit signed by the voter is attached to the outside of each envelope.

Signatures on ballot envelopes are matched with voter registration records before the ballots are given to counting teams.

“Signatures that don’t match are extremely rare,” Thompson said. “Occasionally, a husband signs a wife’s ballot, or vice versa. In that case the ballot would be rejected. Overall, the number of ballots that are rejected is very small.”

About four percent of the ballots cast in the August primaries were rejected — 230 for technical errors and 410 others that arrived past the deadline.

“We have had a situation where an older person has had a stroke and was unable to sign their exact signature, but an attempt was made,” Thompson said. “We have sent a team to the residence to check the person’s ID.”

Absentee ballots are examined and counted three times.

Step 1: Ballot Envelopes

Each bipartisan team member counts the number of yellow ballot envelopes. The total number is recorded on a “reconciliation form”.

Then each team member examines each yellow envelope. If the affidavit is missing, or if it is unsigned, the ballot is rejected.

Team members use the green pen to write the reason for the rejection on the ballot envelope.

They count the number of rejected ballots and record the number on the reconciliation form. Then they put the rejections inside a larger “rejected ballot” envelope.

They count the remaining ballot envelopes that have been accepted, record the number on the reconciliation form and sign it. They ask a supervisor to review their work.

Step 2: Affidavits

Next, team members detach the affidavits from the accepted yellow envelopes, count and record the number, put them in a separate box, seal the box and sign the form.

Step 3: Ballots

Next, team members remove the ballots from the yellow envelopes, then unfold, flatten and stack the ballots face down.

They examine each ballot.

If there are two ballots inside an envelope, both are voided.

If a voter’s name or address has been written on a ballot, it is voided.

If an envelope is empty, it is voided.

Team members use the green pen to write VOID and sign each voided ballot. They count and record the number of voided ballots, put them in a separate envelope, and sign the form.

Then they count and record the number of remaining accepted ballots and sign the form.

As they examine each accepted ballot, they check to see if the voter’s intent is clear — if the small ovals indicating the voter’s choice has been filled in well enough to be scanned accurately.

If both team members decide a voter’s intent is unclear, they call in a second bipartisan counting team to take a look.

If a majority agree the intent is clear, they fill out a new ballot accordingly to ensure the scanner counts the vote accurately. If they don’t agree, the ballot is voided and signed by all.

As they examine the ballots, team members separate any that have been scribbled on or stained by water or coffee. Those ballots also are accepted. They are placed in the bottom of the tote box.

Remaining accepted ballots are placed on top of damaged ones.

Envelopes containing rejected or voided ballots are placed in the box. Reconciliation forms are added last.

Both team members take the completed tote box to another table where two other poll workers record the box number. Everyone signs the log.

The counting team returns to the control area to get another box of ballots.

Meanwhile, the accepted ballots are scanned and recorded on memory sticks. If damaged ballots don’t scan properly, they can be replaced by a bipartisan counting team.

When all ballots have been counted, the memory sticks are removed and delivered by a bipartisan team to the main operations center.

Voting machines and scanners are not connected to the internet so they can’t be hacked.

Early Voting Uneasiness

Mariah Gray, a senior at East High School, cast the very first ballot of her life on the very last day of early voting Thursday.

“It was exciting,” said Gray, who was among the 20,856 people who voted Thursday. “I didn’t realize that they also cheer for first time voters when they vote.”

Gray turned 18 on Saturday, three days before Election Day.

“I voted because I feel like a lot is on the line,” she said. “There were so many events this year that really opened my eyes — like the pandemic and how we are handling it and the racial injustices.”

Earlier in the semester, Gray tested positive for COVID-19. She suffered from a number of symptoms but recovered.

“Catching coronavirus didn’t necessarily change how I felt about it,” she said. “However, it deepened my understanding on how bad that it is when not taken seriously.”

Gray spent the summer and early part of the virtual school year encouraging and helping her fellow students register to vote and to vote early.

“I wanted to vote early because I didn’t want there to be any issues with my vote not counting,” she said. “I know it’s my first time and you just never know. If something went wrong, I wanted there to be enough time to get it fixed and at least vote on Election Day.”

Hargett said he is disappointed by members of both parties who have raised anxieties about the integrity of the election process.

“One side has focused on the mail-in votes and possible voter fraud as the reasons they might not win,” he said. “The other side has focused on voter suppression and say people are being kept from voting and that’s why they might not win.

“I wish every Tennessean would understand that what they might be seeing on Facebook or Twitter or cable news doesn’t reflect what’s really happening at the polls. People are voting in record numbers and the balloting is safe and secure.”

More than 300,000 Shelby County residents voted early this year, a record number.

Memory cards from every voting machine will be delivered to the election commission’s operations center and locked up until 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Two election commissioners — one Democrat and one Republican — will unlock each early voting box. Early votes from all 26 sites will be uploaded and tabulated starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

“We hope to have those totals by 7:01 p.m.,” Thompson said. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”

Hargett said he hopes statewide results will be reported by midnight Tuesday.

Election Day Uncertainty

Rev. Laura Foster Gettys plans to cast her vote on Election Day for two reasons — one personal, one pastoral.

She voted early in last year’s Memphis city election, but was given the wrong ballot. When she discovered the error, she was told it could not be corrected.

“I did not like that,” she said. “I just think there’s more chance for human error in early voting, because you’re not in your regular polling place.”

She also wants to vote on Election Day to provide a pastoral presence at her polling place.

“I’m going to wear my clergy collar and linger a bit,” she said. “The political climate right now is pretty electric. There’s a lot of anxiety and nervousness. I just want to offer a calming presence.”

Rev. Ollie Rencher, her colleague at Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, plans to do the same at his polling place Tuesday.

Clergy aren’t the only voters concerned about Election Day tensions and security.

“Every citizen must be able to vote without interference or discrimination and to have that vote counted without it being stolen because of fraud,” said U.S. Attorney Michael Dunavant, whose jurisdiction covers 22 counties in West Tennessee.

Dunavant and Douglas Korneski, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Memphis Field Office, are setting up command posts in each county to monitor Election Day voting.

State and local police have primary jurisdiction over polling places, and will be called to respond to any Election Day issues. And laws prohibit armed federal agents from being at polling places.

But this is a federal election, and federal law protects against such crimes as intimidating or bribing voters, buying and selling votes, impersonating voters, altering vote tallies, stuffing ballot boxes, and marking ballots for voters against their wishes or without their input.

Voters who witness or experience such acts can call the local FBI field office at 901-747-4300. Complaints about possible violations of the federal voting rights laws also can be made to the Civil Rights Division in Washington at 800-253-3931.

“The federal government is not in the business of checking people in to vote, registering voters, helping to run the voting machines,” Dunavant said. “We’re not in charge of counting votes. We go to great lengths not to interfere with or have the appearance of interfering with voting.”

Dunavant urged voters to use common sense before reporting any concerns about the voting process.

“When you give someone a ride to the polls, it’s not a crime. It’s just a nice thing to do,” he said. “When you provide someone a stamp to mail in their absentee ballot, it’s not a crime. It’s just a nice thing to do.”

“When someone goes inside the partisan boundary at a polling place wearing a candidate’s name on a T-shirt, it’s not a violation of federal law. Just alert the poll workers and they will let the person know it’s against the rules.”

Dunvant said his office would likely investigate complaints only after election results have been counted, reported and certified.

County election commission officials have until Nov. 23 to reconcile and certify the results.

The reconciliation process could be complicated this year, especially because of the large number of provisional ballots.

Those are paper ballots that are used when a voter’s address or registration can’t be verified at the polling place, or if a voter shows up without a government-issued photo ID.

The process also includes reconciling voters who requested absentee ballots, then showed up to vote in person. Or voters who checked-in at the polls, then decided not to cast a ballot.

“Our goal is not to turn anybody away from the polls for any reason,” Thompson said. ”But we’ve got to reconcile any discrepancies in the numbers before we can certify the results. That takes time and patience. This is a tough year to be patient.

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

David Waters
Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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