November 29, 2022
Bannock County Clerk Jason Dixon sat down with the Pocatello-Chubbuck Observer recently to discuss our readers’ concerns about the way ballots were handled and counted following the 2022 General Election.
We began by discussing the normal process for ballot handling. Dixon explained that during early voting, a strict process is followed to ensure the integrity of the ballot boxes. At the beginning of early voting, a new ballot can is brought out and a member of the public (a city employee, the first voter of the day, anyone who is not an election worker) certifies that the can is, in fact, empty. The can is then tagged with a unique number. At the end of the day, the can is locked and placed in the ballot vault, in view of the public-access camera.
Absentee ballots have their own handling protocol. Each ballot arrives at the elections office encased in a privacy sleeve and placed in an envelope signed by the voter. Elections Office staff verify the signatures before placing the ballots in the day’s ballot can. On Election Day, volunteers remove the absentee ballots from their envelopes and place the envelopes in an empty ballot can. Then the ballots are removed from their sleeves. Finally, the total number of ballots is compared to the total number of envelopes, to ensure the accuracy of the ballot count.
Each county is permitted to choose when to count the early and absentee ballots, under the condition that no results be released until after the polls close statewide. In Bannock County, those ballots are counted first, and the results are normally released shortly after 9:00 p.m.
Dixon explained that all ballots follow a specific path through the elections office during the counting process, in order to ensure that each ballot is counted once and only once. First, each can of early and absentee ballots is taken from the vault to a table in the open area of the office. The can is then opened and the ballots are placed in a jogger (a machine that shakes them into even stacks that can be run through the tabulators). The stacks are placed on a table next to the tabulators, where they sit until the tabulator operators are ready for them. Once counted, the ballots are placed in boxes and returned to the vault, and the count results are taken to the IT Desk to be uploaded to the Secretary of State’s website. Once the Election Day ballots cans arrive from the precincts, they follow the same path through the office. Three cameras ensure that the public can watch the entire process in real time.
Bannock County uses DS450 tabulators from the Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software company. The tabulators count the ballots using lasers. The machines are not computerized, contain no modems, and have no internal memories. They record the vote totals on proprietary, encrypted flash drives which are wiped after every election and reused. The count summaries of every election are retained, and the actual paper ballots are stored for a minimum of five years.
Dixon told the Observer that the early and absentee ballots were indeed counted first on Election Day this year; however, when the IT guy attempted to upload the count results to the Secretary of State’s website, he realized that the the tabulator operators had made an error: they had neglected to set the machines for early/absentee counting before running the ballots. (This is a step that was added this year, intended to ensure election integrity by making it possible to compare the total number of counted ballots to the total number of early/absentee ballots that were requested. Once the ballots are counted, the classification cannot be changed without recounting the ballots.) The error made it impossible for him to upload the early/absentee count. It was also impossible to recount the ballots immediately, since the election workers had already begun processing the Election Day ballots. Dixon, who as a candidate had to remain in public areas of the Elections Office, was informed of the error by election workers a few minutes after they became aware of it. He made the decision to return the early/absentee ballots to the vault for recounting later in the evening, rather than risk mixing them with the same-day ballots that were already being processed. No count summary was printed, because the data had already been zeroed out; however, the number of ballots was already known and therefore the possibility of tampering with the ballots while they waited in the vault was not felt to be a concern.
This same count difficulty was also responsible for another point that concerned many of our readers: the fact that although ballots were still being counted, the elections website showed 100% of precincts reporting. Dixon explained that because the Election Day results included ballots from every precinct, the system automatically reported that all precincts had reported. He said it required a phone call to the Secretary of State’s office to correct the error.
During the final count of the early/absentee ballots, remote observers noticed that ballot boxes seemed to be entering and leaving the area visible on camera, and questioned where those boxes were sitting during the count. Dixon said they were on a table directly below the camera, and remarked that it may be necessary to adjust that camera to improve the viewing angle.
We also talked about election worker and poll worker training. Dixon explained that poll worker training is conducted by the county before every election. He brought up the frequently-reported problem of poll workers failing to verify the IDs of every voter before issuing a ballot, and stated that he will stress in the next training that every voter’s identity MUST be verified. Dixon further stated that he would like to see the state eliminate the use of personal affidavits as a means of establishing voter identity, instead requiring the use of IDs that also function as proof of citizenship.
The office of the Secretary of State conducts annual training in Boise for election workers. Due to budget concerns, Dixon does not require all staff member to attend every year. Those who do attend share information with the staff who remain in Pocatello.
Finally, we discussed the question of hand versus machine recounts. Dixon explained that statistics show that machine counting has a lower error rate than hand counting. Further, he explained that he does not have the authority to determine the manner in which a recount is done—that is set by the legislature. Idaho code states that if a recount is requested in a jurisdiction that performed the original count using tabulators, a small percentage of the ballots must be recounted both by hand and by machine. Then, if the two counts differ by one-fourth of one percent or less, the remaining ballots shall be recounted using the tabulators. If the two counts differ by more than one-fourth of one percent, then the remaining ballots shall be recounted by hand.
At the end of our conversation, Dixon offered to show me where ballots are stored after the elections are certified. We walked around to the alley behind the assessor’s office, entered the back door, and went downstairs. There, in a section of the basement partitioned off with wire mesh, I saw shelf after shelf of banker-type boxes, marked according to which election the ballots they contained were from. On our way back to the courthouse, we paused to discuss the ballot drop box located next the the entrance of the Elections Office. I asked whether the feed from the surveillance video is available to the public; he said that it is available upon request. The ballot drop box can be seen on several of the Courthouse Security cameras, the best of which is located across the street on the corner of the assessor’s building. These feeds can be played back at high speed, and stopped every time movement is detected. Then, the number of ballots in the box can be compared to the number of times motion was detected at the box, thus providing a way to see if ballot stuffing is occurring. Dixon said that so far, no one has abused the ballot drop box, and that if abuses were to occur, he would remove the box.