Saturday, October 25, 2008

Election workers fire up 'The Beast'


Where fingers once were calloused and bitten with paper cuts, an $80,000 conveyor belt for envelopes sits. With its countless rubber belts, rollers and circular razor blades, it slices open 5,000 envelopes an hour.
It’s difficult to know what’s more impressive: that nearly 54 percent of Santa Barbara County’s 198,820 registered voters vote-by-mail, or that county election employees used to open each and every envelope by hand.

The growing popularity of vote-by-mail, and the anticipated high voter turnout for the Nov. 4 general election precipitated the purchase of what election workers call, “The Beast.”
Now the days of paper cuts and cramped hands are over.
“It looks like spaghetti,” said Elections Supervisor Suzanne Jackson of the Opex ballot extractor. “It works pretty well.”
The county's Election Office began opening vote-by-mail ballots yesterday. So far, 34,774 of the 106,489 ballots mailed to county voters have been returned.
While the machine has hastened the process, it hasn’t completely eliminated human labor.
The county’s vote-by-mail operation is housed in a mostly unmarked, second-story office space in the Chicago Title building located on the corner of Anacapa and Figueroa streets.
One would have to look to find it. And even if a person stumbled upon it, it’s difficult to get past the iron door that requires a passcode, which is unique to each employee, to enter.
Once inside, the office is predictably lined with cubicles. But the conveyor belt in the back of the room combined with the dozen or so security cameras lining the ceiling cancel out any normalcy.
Like the purchase of “The Beast,” the county began renting the space last fall in order to accommodate the increasing volume of ballots that arrive by mail that need to be processed in a timely manner.
Prior to running the ballot envelopes through “The Beast,” another machine verifies the signature on each envelope.
Once the envelope is opened on three sides, the ballots are extracted, flattened out by employees and briefly analyzed to ensure they haven’t been incorrectly marked or ripped.
In the event that a ballot is damaged and won’t be accepted, Jackson said an election employee fills out a new ballot. But this process isn’t that simple. While one person fills out a new ballot for the voter, Jackson said several other people observe to ensure the new ballot reflects exactly what the damaged one did.
“It has to be done in a very specific way to protect the voter,” she said.
The ballots that aren’t damaged are set in small baskets and kept in the “ballot room.” Jackson said only a handful of people are allowed in this room, and each time a person enters and exits, it’s recorded.
Several cameras hug the ceiling in the ballot room, and in the event of a fire, a special extinguishing system which does not require water and won’t damager the ballots is triggered.
“Hopefully we’ll never need it but it’s nice to have,” Jackson said.
When the ballots leave this room, they are processed by another machine, which electronically records the results and stores the tally in a server that Jackson said no one is allowed to see until election night.
Jackson said the county purchased “The Beast” last fall and it was first used for the presidential primary in February.
As far as Jackson knows, Santa Barbara County is one of the only counties with such a machine. But that’s probably going to change soon.
County Clerk, Recorder and Assessor Joe Holland, who has been coordinating a state-wide effort to record vote-by-mail data on a day-by-day basis, said yesterday that 40 percent of the state now votes by mail.
As of yesterday, he said 1.6 million vote-by-mail ballots have been returned to their respective counties.
And though Santa Barbara County workers are getting a jump on the action, they’ll likely be firing up “The Beast” long after election day to tally the vote-by-mail ballots that are handed in at polling places.
“We’ve got to work as hard as we can,” Jackson said of keeping up with the stream of ballots. “It’s a good system and it’s flowing very well.”

No comments: