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Sat, Oct. 19

New ballot envelopes still secure, but cost less

PRESCOTT - Yavapai County elections officials expected some confusion from the change to vote-by-mail ballots that went into effect this fall, but the transition will save money in the long run.

County Recorder Leslie Hoffman said the new envelopes still ensure voter privacy and ballot secrecy.

"Our old envelope packages - for the three envelopes we were using - was 40 cents per package," she said. "These new envelopes are 23 cents per package."

The envelope package includes the envelope used to send ballots to voters and two envelopes that voters use to send their completed ballots back.

What's changed is the two envelopes voters use to return their ballots.

"We knew we would have some questions," Hoffman said.

The previous vote-by-mail system included a secrecy envelope, and the voter's affidavit was part of the outer envelope.

The new envelopes moved the affidavit to the inner envelope.

However, the envelopes are simpler, making them both less expensive to produce and easier to process.

Hoffman said the new envelopes will work in the mechanical systems used to open envelopes in the elections office, and will be compatible with a newer system she plans on purchasing in the future.

With nearly 80 percent of voters in Yavapai County voting as permanent early voters or by mail, she said making sure the new envelopes can be machine-opened will save on labor costs as well.

Hoffman said in speaking with county recorders across Arizona she learned many counties have the voters sign the outside of the outer envelope. That's something Yavapai County voters have said they won't do - Hoffman said voters told her years ago they don't want their signatures visible in the mail.

"We had to come up with something to still conceal the signature on the inside," she said.

Elections officials in Tucson and Pima County already use a system similar to the new envelopes in Yavapai County, so local officials didn't need to design a completely new envelope system, nor did they need to invent the process to handle them.

Hoffman said when ballots arrive in the elections office, they are run through a machine that opens the green outer envelope.

From there, they are separated into batches of 75. Each batch is audited to make sure the inner affidavit envelope, which remains sealed, is signed. Unsigned affidavits are set aside.

The remaining envelopes go to elections officials who scan the barcode on the envelope with a computer, bringing up the voter's information, including signature. If there are questions about the signature, those too are set aside.

Hoffman said county elections workers who inspect signatures take a forensic handwriting class every two years, giving them the skills they need to determine whether a signature is authentic.

"We look at every signature," she said.

Elections officials don't open envelopes with questionable signatures or no signature at all.

Rather, they attempt to contact each voter.

The new envelopes include a space for the voter's phone number or other contact information, which Hoffman said is particularly useful for contacting voters about immediate issues with their ballots.

She said contact information on the affidavit envelope never becomes part of the voter's publicly disclosable information - it's only used when elections officials need to contact a voter.

If elections officials can contact a voter, they'll either send them a new ballot in the mail, or the voter can come into the office to verify their signature.

"Once we've got a good signature, it's sent to the elections department," Hoffman said.

Bipartisan teams of elections officials are then tasked with opening the inner affidavit envelope. They leave ballots folded and return the envelopes back to the sealed boxes used to transport them between offices.

"At no time is the name on the envelope sitting next to the open ballot," Hoffman said.

Once the envelopes are back in the boxes, elections officials begin examining ballots for any problems that will prevent them from being machine-counted.

Hoffman said that includes looking for tears, stains or stray marks. She said there's always several ballots with coffee stains or other food on them.

If it's clear what the voter's intention was, but the ballot won't be able to be counted by the machine, elections officials fill out another ballot to be counted, setting the damaged ballot aside.

From there, it's a simple process of running the ballots through the optical reader on election night that scans each ballot and tabulates the results.

Hoffman said the entire process of opening envelopes, inspecting signatures and ballots, and counting them on the day of the election is captured by video cameras, further ensuring election integrity. She added anyone interested in seeing the process in action can observe through a window at the elections office.

Follow reporter Les Bowen on Twitter @NewsyLesBowen. Reach him at 928-445-3333, ext. 1110, or 928-830-9305.

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