Super Tuesday marks the first presidential primary election where 15 counties will ditch traditional polling places and use a vote-by-mail system. The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit went behind the scenes in San Mateo County to see how the new system works.
“It really is a template for the way California is going to be voting in the future,” San Mateo County Chief Elections Officer Jim Irizarry told NBC Bay Area.
Irizarry's office was instrumental in convincing the state to pass the 2016 Voter’s Choice Act in the hopes of increasing voter participation. But another benefit of the new system is it allows election officials to improve security because it moves away from electronic machines, in favor of paper ballots.
“There is no more secure method of voting than on paper. Paper provides valid custody and an auditable trail. Digital voting is iffy, you're subject to technology,” Irizarry said.
NBC Bay Area cameras took a tour of the county’s processing center to witness firsthand exactly what happens after you submit a ballot.
Election workers first conduct an initial count by scanning the closed envelopes through a mail sorter that’s capable of sorting 40,000 in an hour. Ballot envelopes then go through a second scan to capture the voter’s signature to start the signature verification process.
Staff compares the signature on the back of the ballot with the voter’s registration card to look for similarities. It’s an important security step, but Irizarry says hundreds of voters forget to sign every year, jeopardizing their vote.
“When that happens, [the ballot] goes into a ‘no signature’ pile," Irizarry said. "If they get it to us early enough, we will send them a letter and ask them to please sign their ballot. If it's too late in the game, it's kind of difficult to do.”
Envelopes with a valid signature are cut open using an extraction machine, then the ballots themselves are scanned and counted. Irizarry says the paper trail prevents hacking and allows for a verifiable archive that can later be double-checked.
“I am not particularly concerned that any nation state actor can get into our voting tabulation system," Irizarry said. "In fact, I'll go on record that it is almost impossible to do. It is a very secured system.”