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Election Over, D.C. Workers Keep Counting Ballots — Thousands Of Them

Boxes of special ballots waiting to be processed at the D.C. Board of Elections.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
Boxes of special ballots waiting to be processed at the D.C. Board of Elections.

"It's exhausting."

That's how Clifford Tatum, the executive director of the D.C. Board of Elections, describes the work that has taken place after the Nov. 4 general election.

Though the campaign signs are coming down, public attention has shifted away and most of the top-ticket races — mayor, attorney general, D.C. Council seats, the marijuana legalization initiative — were settled after votes were tallied on election night, work has since continued for Tatum and his staff.

That's because as with every election, the elections board is charged with counting every ballot that's properly cast. The bulk of those come during early voting or on Election Day — 25,750 residents voted early, while 125,606 voted on Nov. 4.

But for those residents living outside the city, or those who fall into a number of categories that may require that they vote using a special — or provisional — ballot, their votes are counted in the two weeks following the election. For the general election, that adds up to a lot of ballots — close to 6,000 absentee ballots and over 20,000 special ballots.

On Saturday, Tatum and over a dozen workers hunkered down in the elections board's office, slowly chipping away at the thousands of special ballots that had to be counted.

It's a time-consuming process, Tatum explains: first the special ballots have to be sorted, and depending on the category of the ballot, the voter's eligibility has to be checked. If they filed a change of address, their file on the city's voter rolls has to be updated.

The process of sorting the special ballots can take between three and five minutes per ballot. And it's only after the ballots are sorted into categories — same-day registrations, voting out of precinct, change of address — that the votes can even be counted.

Through last Friday, the elections board staff had sorted and counted 6,390 special ballots. (Along with absentee ballots, an additional 12,379 votes have been added to the Nov. 4 results.) It's a quiet toil, and as Tatum concedes, one that largely goes unnoticed since the ballot counts won't change the results of most of the bigger races. But for some of the city's most local contests, he notes, every vote counts.

"What we're seeing from the absentees and the thousands of same-day [votes], it did not impact that upper-ballot contests, but it will certainly could impact the school board contests and ANCs," he says, referring to Advisory Neighborhood Commission races. As we reported earlier this month, over a dozen ANC races remained too close to call after Election Day — and some have gotten closer as absentee and special ballots are counted.

The special ballots are also used by new voters, or those who weren't able to change their address prior to the closure of the voter rolls 30 days before any election.

"We know we're going to see change of addresses, and we know we're going to see voting out of precinct. Out of the 20,000 [special ballots], 7,000 to 8,000 were same-day registrations. That's new people in the system," explains Tatum.

Still, Tatum says that the sheer number of special ballots being cast is a cause for concern. In the 2012 presidential election, 1 in 7 voters cast special ballots, a 367 percent increase from the 2010 general election. (All told, it was close to 40,000 special ballots.) That year, 40 percent of special ballots were same-day registrations, 35 percent change of addresses and 10 percent out-of-precinct voters.

For this year's general election, the absolute number of special ballots may have decreased, but so did the total number of ballots cast. That means that the proportion of voters using special ballots has remained high.

Part of the problem is the D.C. law allowing voters to cast ballots outside of their home precinct. Tatum not only discourages the practice, but would like to see the law permitting it changed. Voters who don't update their addresses on Election Day also pose a challenge, and that same-day registrants vote using special ballots and not normal ballots like in some states only adds to the election board's post-election workload.

Tweaks to existing law would help, he says, and so too would a modernized voting and tabulation system. After the April primary, that's exactly what the elections board asked for — all new voting machines and electronic pollbooks.

A new law passed by the D.C. Council and recently signed by Mayor Vincent Gray will also make things easier, says Tatum, by allowing the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles to share its database of electronic signatures with the elections board. Once that's up and running, D.C. will have a true online voter registration system, unlike the current system that allows a voter to submit an online form but requires them to send in a signed paper copy to finalize the registration.

But on Saturday, what could be wasn't Tatum's priority. Like many of his staff, he too was sorting special ballots. The elections board had 14,000 left to work through, and Tatum says he hopes to have final counts by Tuesday or Wednesday.

But even after that's done and the election is certified — which is expected to happen in early December — there may be more counting to be done: anything less than one percent of votes standing between two candidates will trigger an automatic recount.


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