Why counting outstanding ballots is slow

7-step process used to to ensure accuracy

SAN DIEGO - A couple of tight local races still hinge on hundreds of thousands of mail-in and provisional ballots and more than 120 employees are working 13 hours a day over two shifts at the county Registrar of Voters office.

So what's taking so long? It is not as simple as opening an envelope, but it is actually a multi-step process riddled with potential pitfalls.

First, employees use a machine to scan envelope barcodes and signatures. Then, they verify signatures against those on file. Any dubious signatures are re-examined. These employees have received FBI signature ID training.

Next, envelopes that are OK'd go back to the sorting machine to be sliced open and separated by city. It is not until step five that the ballot itself is extracted.

"That's a time consuming process and there are a number of exceptions with the mail ballots as well as, once we extract it, we have to look at it," explained assistant registrar Michael Vu.

For example, if someone puts a check or an "x" instead of filling in the ovals completely, that ballot has to go into the exception pile.

From there, the ballots go to step six – quality control – where ballots that pass are boxed. The rest are sorted by city for further scrutiny.

Then, it is finally on to step seven: a restricted access room where the approved ballots are scanned and placed into the count.

Meanwhile, in a separate area, the roughly 100,000 provisional ballots are being sorted.  They will not be evaluated until the 275,000 mail ballots are finished. This process can take even longer.  The registrar has until Dec. 4 to certify the results.

"Ultimately, we need all 28 days," said Vu.

The number of people turning in last-minute mail ballots has also shot up. During the November election in 2008, more than 100,000 mail ballots were dropped off on Election Day. This year, the number grew to 175,000.

Total outstanding ballots jumped from 216,000 in 2008 to 375,000 this year.

"With that many outstanding ballots it's possible it could turn the election," Vu said.

The Registrar of Voters office said they should finish with the mail-in ballots by mid to end of next week.

However, candidate Scott Peters, who leads in the tight 52nd Congressional District race, is not waiting. His campaign said he will head to Washington, DC for next week's freshmen representative orientation.

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