This is the second in a two-part series detailing how Siskiyou County Clerk, Colleen Setzer, and the Siskiyou County Elections Office works to secure voter information and election integrity. Part 1 is here
On Friday, Nov. 3, I checked in at the County Clerk’s office, put on my visitor’s badge and followed County Clerk Colleen Setzer into her office for instructions. I was there to watch the counting of the first mail-in ballots received for the upcoming November 8th election.
“By law, we are able to begin counting mail-in ballots during the week preceding the election,” instructed Setzer. “We have processed 300 ballots so far, matching signatures on the ballots to those on our records and stored them in our locked ballot room.”
I noticed that ballots are always handled with two people present. They are counted and recounted as they are moved from the ballot room to the counting space, and back. They are always kept under lock and key.
In the counting room, envelopes were zipped opened by the new automatic opening machine. “That saves about 45 minutes for this small count,” noted Assistant Clerk Laura Bynum. “For a countywide election, that machine will save us hours!”
While Bynum and Setzer separated ballots from their envelopes, we talked about running county elections. “Elections take up about 50% of our time,” Bynum explained. “I really love the elections work, but must admit the favorite part of my job is performing weddings.”
The November 8th election is a small special election involving one town and three special districts. It is a mail-in ballot only election which follows all the rules for handling and processing mail-in ballots. “Ballots must be postmarked on election day or earlier,” said Bynum, “and received in the Clerk’s office within three days of election day. For countywide regular elections, mail-in ballots can be dropped off at polling places.”
As the work continued, my attention was drawn to the voting machines stored in the corner of the vote counting room. As was noted in the previous article, Siskiyou County’s new optical scanning voting machines were first used in the 2016 Presidential Election. They are fully certified by the state and federal government.
Because the focus of this article series was security, I asked Setzer and Bynum to explain how the machines were moved to the polling places throughout Siskiyou County, and how they were secured throughout their journey to and from the polling places.
“After the voter machine preparation, which takes about four hours per machine, they are locked and secured,” explained Setzer. “My staff is responsible for moving the machines to the polling places the day before the election. Each staff team has a route that covers every polling place in the county.”
“Before the polls open on election day the polling place supervisor and his or her staff unlock the machine, plug it in and activate it,” continued Setzer. “There is a log that records every step taken, and by whom.”
“At 8 p.m., after the polls are closed, the machine prints a count of how many ballots were processed – no vote counting yet,” Setzer was quick to point out. “It is turned off, and one of the two memory cards and the paper ballots are removed from the machine by my staff person who then returns the memory card, ballots and log from the machine to the Clerk’s office on election night. Our machines are never connected to the internet for any reason.”
“The actual machine is picked up the next day, again by an office staff person.” said Bynum. “Our staff is quite small, so we’re all very busy around election time!”
The voting machine memory cards are fed into the Clerk’s Office main vote counting system, where the count for each polling place is recorded separately and added to the county totals. For elections with statewide offices, the totals are sent to the Secretary of State’s office via secure servers.
It takes several weeks for an election to be certified. Setzer explained that to certify an election she must have personal knowledge and be satisfied that all ballots are accounted for and the count is accurate. To reach that certainty, she conducts a manual count of 1% of all ballots submitted. “The manual count must match the machine count,” explained Bynum.
“We also must account for all unused ballots,” continued Setzer. “I also like to have a manual tally if there are any issues at a polling place. When all checks are completed, I certify the election.”
Spending several days researching election security in Siskiyou County has reassured me that based on the oversight and efforts of the California Secretary of State and tireless efforts of our own County Clerk’s office, our elections are secure. In addition, I was impressed at how determined our County Clerk and Assistant County Clerk are to make voting open and available to every eligible citizen.
Colleen Setzer welcomes and encourages people to call her personally with questions about their own voting status or voting in general.
-- Joanne Steele is a long time resident of southern Siskiyou County who has been involved in civic activities, from beautification projects and local politics to local food security. She currently lives with her husband, Ed, in Dunsmuir.