Government / Politics

Secure voting in the time of COVID-19

Retiring county election official Angela Curro says 85% of local voters mailed in their ballots last cycle.

With an election complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, retiring San Benito County Assistant Clerk-Recorder-Registrar Angela Curro wants to send a message to residents: your vote counts and will be counted.

“California is ahead of the curve with by-mail voting,” Curro said, “and we have all the tools a voter could possibly need to vote successfully.” 

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 860 into law on June 18, which requires all counties to send a ballot to eligible voters in advance of the Nov. 3 general election.

While mail-in ballots are nothing new, the push to increase voting by mail for this election has caused concern among voters, fueled in part by partisan doubts cast on the security of the process.

“San Benito County has been moving to vote-by-mail for decades now,” Curro said. “In 1992, 85% of votes were cast in person at the polls. It has flipped now and we have seen increases in mailed-in ballots every election since. Last election 85% of voters mailed in ballots, so we have the experience to make sure the process works.”

Curro said there will be special accommodations for social distancing this year to make voting as safe as possible, including secure drop boxes and an extended schedule for in-person voting. For the first time, residents voting by mail will have the opportunity to track their ballots.

Voters who are already registered or who register by Sept. 1 will be included in the first round of voting kit mailings, which will go out on Oct. 5. On that date, voters with special needs or who have questions about the voting kit will be able to cast their ballots at the San Benito County Elections Office, 440 Fifth Street, Ste. 206, in Hollister.

Residents who wish to vote in person will have four days to choose from one of the early polling locations, still to be announced. These locations are expected to open starting Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Election Day, Nov. 3, polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The voting process begins by verifying that each person only votes once.

“When voters get their ballots to us,” Curro said, “we go through a very tedious process of validating those ballots and ensuring each person only voted once.”

Though it’s unlikely, a voter may receive more that one ballot. Extra ballots might be generated when people change party affiliation or re-register with a new mailing address.

“A person could receive three ballots and mail them all in, but only one would be valid,” said Joe Paul Gonzalez, San Benito clerk, auditor and recorder. “The first one that comes in is the one we count.”

As an extra security measure, the signature on every mail-in ballot is checked against the records at the elections office. If they don’t match, the office follows up with the voter to verify that it is a valid ballot.

“The only duplication we see a lot of is seniors who vote by mail, then forget they have voted,” Curro said. “They will come into the office to vote and we can bring their ballot up to them to show them that they have already voted.”

When it comes time to count the votes, the public is welcome to watch and even participate in the process. 

“The ballots are brought in and a team of employees and volunteers opens them with a specially designed machine that extracts the ballot from the envelope without revealing the voter information,” Curro said. “The voter information is then removed and the ballot is reviewed for readability before we put it into the scanning system. If there is anything that keeps the ballot from being scanned correctly, they are replicated exactly and then scanned.”

Everything is counted—from the ballots to the envelopes—then compared to the scanned totals to be sure they match and that there has been no tampering.

The entire process is set up to ensure that not only the vote count is valid, but that nobody, including the clerks, knows what the vote results are until the polls close on Election Day.

“Come 8 o’clock, we are as surprised as anybody,” Curro said.

The results announced the evening of the election are only provisional, as the vote count goes through additional security measures.

“We have 30 days to do an audit of the election,” Curro said. “We start with a manual recount of all the ballots to be sure the system is counting everything correctly. We also check to be sure there is no tampering of the ballots. No one person is left alone with any of the ballots and we have camera security in the rooms as well.”

Ballots with unusual markings are also examined. If a voter makes a mistake by voting in the wrong place, crosses it out, and then votes correctly, that ballot would be examined by adjudicators who do their best to decide on the voter’s intent, allowing the ballot to be counted.

After 30 days, the results are certified and the vote totals become official.

One change this year is that residents can track their ballots from the moment they are sent to the moment they are counted. The elections office offers a sign-up form that allows residents to register. They can even select how they want to be notified—by email, text or voice message.

Curro has been involved with local government since 1987, and will be retiring from her office on Aug. 7.

“I had already decided to retire before the virus hit,” Curro said. “The presidential primaries are always tough elections. I felt I had done my time and wanted to dedicate more time to the business my husband and I run.”

She said she feels comfortable leaving the office before the election, as complicated as it may turn out to be this year.

“I am leaving it in great hands and think we have the best staff we have ever had,” she said. “COVID-19 will be a factor, but I am not leaving town and I have told everyone that I will be here if they need me. But I am happy with my decision and I look forward to being a voter rather than someone on the other side of the counter!”


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Robert Eliason

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