ALBION — How do mail-in ballots get counted, and what security measures are in place to ensure the ballot is valid and gets counted correctly?
Noble County Clerk Shelley Mawhorter walked through the process, step-by-step this week, explaining what happens and what safety features are in place to guard against potential fraud.
With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing and mail-in voting being utilized more across the U.S., voters casting their ballots by mail has become a flashpoint issue. Although politicians, most notably President Donald Trump, rail that mail-in voting opens the door to widespread fraud, there’s no evidence to back that claim.
At the local level, sending out, collecting and counting mail-in ballots is a labor, but it’s not a problem. When asked if she has any concerns about mail-in ballots, Mawhorter, an eight-year Republican clerk who is finishing her last election this fall before term-limiting out of that county office, she said she doesn’t.
“I don’t,” she said. “I don’t have any concerns.”
In the primary, 2,750 ballots came in by mail, 44% of the total in Noble County.
Of those 2,750 ballots, election officials had only six that were rejected because of issues with the ballot, Mawhorter said. Those six ballots represent just 0.2% of all mail-in ballots and just 0.096% of all ballots cast in the primary.
How does the mail-in process work and what keeps it secure and fair? Mawhorter walked through it step by step:
Step 1: Voters must apply for a mail-in ballot
If you want to vote by mail, you have to request a ballot.
In some states or municipalities that utilize mail-in voting more expansively, they may send ballot applications to everyone or may even send out blank ballots to all registered voters.
That’s not the case in Indiana, where voters have to ask for a mail-in ballot and have to qualify to actually get one.
“We won’t just send it to you,” Mawhorter said.
In the spring, due to the statewide stay-at-home order, Indiana suspended its normal rules requiring a person to cite a valid reason for needing a mail-in absentee ballot. That hasn’t happened again this fall, however, meaning that voters must meet one of 11 qualifications for wanting a mail-in ballot, such as being over 65 years old, being homebound, being out of county or at work for the full 12 hours on Election Day, among others.
Voters can print out a ballot application via indianavoters.in.gov or call the clerk’s office to request one.
Security check: When you fill out your application and send it to the clerk, you must sign the ballot application. This signature can be compared against your voter registration and will also be used later to compare against your ballot.
Security check: When receiving the ballot application, the clerk will check to ensure the requester is a registered voter with a valid registration. The information in the application will be cross-checked against the registration before a ballot is sent out.
Step 2: Receiving and filling out the ballot
If your mail-in application is accepted, the clerk will mail you your ballot.
Ballots are sent in manila-colored envelopes and inside you’ll find several components, including an instruction sheet, a ballot sheet containing the contests and the corresponding numbers for the candidates, a scan-tron bubble sheet to fill out (this is the actual ballot that gets counted later), and a lime green return envelope.
Security check: When you receive your ballot, check the bubble sheet. It contains two boxes labeled “D (initials)” and “R (initials).” If those boxes are not initialed, contact the clerk’s office because the ballot won’t be counted if those are missing. Those boxes are signed by election officials in the clerk’s office to ensure that the ballot that is being mailed out is the same one that comes back, preventing people from obtaining numerous blank ballots to mail in.
“Make sure there is a D and an R and two initials,” Mawhorter said. “If we did not initial this, you need to contact us.”
If those components are in place, you can fill out your ballot, put it in a sleeve and insert it into the green envelope and seal the envelope.
Security check: The envelope must be sealed to ensure that the ballot has not been tampered with.
Security check: Underneath the seal flap will be a label with your voter information on it, which again guards against people creating fraudulent copies to mail in.
Security check: Voters must sign the green envelope. Each envelope will have a small “Sign here” label. If that envelope is not signed, the ballot will not be counted. This signature will be compared to other signatures in the process.
“There’s a little label here that has your address. You stick this with a security card inside, you seal it, and you sign. Everything comes with a ‘sign here’ sticker. Sign it here and date it,” Mawhorter said. “If the signature isn’t here, we’re not counting it.”
Mawhorter noted that of the six ballots rejected in the primary, at least one of them was rejected because the voter forgot to sign their ballot envelope.
If someone with power of attorney is assisting a person fill out a ballot due to age or disability, that person must be the person who signed both the ballot application and the ballot, and a copy of proof of power of attorney should be included in the ballot envelope, Mawhorter said.
Step 3: Mail the ballot back
Once everything is done and sealed, stick the envelope in your mail box or drop it off at the post office.
Postage is already paid, so you don’t need to add a stamp.
Security check: Do not give your ballot to anyone to return for you. Some states allow political campaigns or operates to collect and return ballots for people, but Indiana is not one of those states. Outside of another family member or a person with power of attorney, you should not give your ballot to anyone else to drop off for you.
If you’re concerned about the ballot going through the mail, whether it might get lost in transit or whether it will make it in time — ballots must be received at the courthouse by noon on Election Day in order to be counted — you can drop off your ballot in-person at the Noble County Clerk’s office during regular business hours.
A reminder, however, that the courthouse is closed on Election Day, so ballots cannot be dropped off in person on Nov. 3.
Voters cannot turn in mail-in ballots at early voting sites.
Voters, can, however, show up at a polling site on Election Day, surrender their mail-in ballot to pollworkers — all pieces must be included — and then vote in-person. Completed mail-in ballots turned in at polling sites on Election Day will not be counted.
Security check: If a voter was sent a mail-in ballot but then shows up at a polling site, they will need to sign an affidavit swearing they did not receive the mailed ballot and then can cast their vote in person. If a mail-in ballot was received from that voter, it will be invalidated and only the in-person vote will count.
If you’re concerned about whether your ballot has been received before Election Day, you can contact the clerk’s office to check to see if they have received it.
Step 4: Counting the ballots
No mail-in ballots are opened by election officials before Election Day.
When election officials get started — Mawhorter has hired extra help again this fall as thousands of mail-in ballots have been requested compared to a few dozen to a couple hundred in non-pandemic times — they do so in pairs.
Security check: Ballot counters work in two-person teams, one Republican and one Democrat, to prevent any potential partisan tampering at the courthouse.
“Now I have four teams of a Republican and Democrat on each team, plus election board Republican and Democrat,” Mawhorter said.
Prior to counting, election officials pair each green envelope with the corresponding ballot application. The envelopes are wrapped in those applications and kept together.
When counting begins, the bipartisan teams unwrap the ballot application and then compare it to the ballot envelope.
Security check: Counting teams compare the signatures on the ballot application to the ballot envelope. Both counters need to agree that the signatures match. If there is a discrepancy, the counters call over the members of the Noble County Election Board — Republican Randy Handshoe and Democrat Lori Jansen — to also consult. If needed, the signatures can be compared to the third signature available on the voter registration. If election workers determine the signatures do not match, the ballot will be set aside into a reject pile.
“The first Democrat and Republican cannot just reject it. It’s got to go on to the election board,” Mawhorter said. “They ran up and down the steps in the spring I don’t know how many times,” to assist with questions on ballots.
Security check: If the ballot envelope is not signed, it will be rejected.
Security check: If the envelope is not sealed, the ballot is rejected.
If the signatures match and the ballot is sealed, the ballot envelope will be opened and its contents removed.
Security check: If the bubble sheet does not contain signed initials from the Republican and Democrat election officials, the ballot will be rejected.
Security check: The scan-tron sheet is placed into one pile and the ballot materials are placed separately to ensure that pollworkers do not associate a person’s identity with the votes they cast and ensure privacy of their ballot.
Accepted ballots are run through a machine to be counted.
Mawhorter warned that anyone using a mail-in ballot needs to fill in bubbles completely and clearly with pencil or black in. Partially filled bubbles or errant marks on the ballot can cause the ballot to be counted incorrectly or rejected. Those kinds of errors could be the new hanging chads of the 2000 presidential election infamy.
“You’ve got to fill in your circles darkly,” Mawhorter said.
Step 5: Questioned ballots get second look
Ballots that are rejected on first pass are set aside, but will get a second evaluation later in the process.
Election officials will take a second look at any ballots that were set aside due to discrepancies and evaluate them a second time. This may include other bipartisan teams taking a look at them and/or a second look by the Election Board officials.
If, on second glance by a new set of eyes, the ballot appears to be OK, it will be opened and counted. If discrepancies can’t be resolved, however, the ballot will be rejected and not counted.
Election officials will not contact people on Election Day to try to clear up discrepancies and voters will not be informed if their ballot was rejected due to some error, Mawhorter said.
Rejection, however, is pretty rare, as evidenced by only six ballots being turned out of the 2,750 received in June.
Mail-in voting contains several built-in security features to ensure that ballots only go to valid voters and that the ballot that is sent is the same one that is returned to prevent people from attempting to counterfeit or duplicate ballot materials.
Ballot counting is done in bipartisan teams working together to ensure validity of votes and, if accepted, ballots are set aside and counted by machine so election workers don’t know what votes are cast on individual ballots.
Any discrepancies in mail-in ballots must go through at least two bipartisan teams and are looked at least twice before being rejected due to problems or errors.
Although Mawhorter can’t guarantee the same level of security in every county in Indiana or in other states in the U.S., voters in Noble County shouldn’t be concerned about fraud via mail-in ballots affecting the local tallies this fall, she said.