With nearly 100 temporary and permanent staff, ballot processing work is being done in several sequential steps. Photo: Tracey Taylor

By Joe DeCredico

Joe DeCredico, an architect based in West Berkeley and the co-chair of the Yes on Measure T campaign, doesn’t know how the final tally on the proposed west Berkeley zoning ordinance will come out, but he was intrigued to find out more about the process of counting the outstanding votes. He therefore spent time over the weekend at the Alameda County Registrar. It is clear, he says, that Registrar Dave Macdonald and his team do a terrific job.

As the co-chair of Yes on T, I of course have a vested interest how the votes are counted, but the geek inside of me was also just curious as to how the process of counting absentee and provisional ballots works. So Saturday morning I arrived bright and early at the County Registrar of Voters to exercise my civic right and observe the ballot counting. For those who are interested, and for those who keep sniping about how long the process takes, I hope these observations will clear the waters.

It is estimated that there were approximately 100,000 absentee and 40,000 provisional ballots to be counted in the Alameda County Registrar of Voters facility. This figure comes from estimating the number of ballots in a bin and counting the bins. So that number could change significantly either way.

The Alameda County Registrar of Voters is in the basement of the Old County Courthouse in Oakland. With nearly 100 temporary and permanent staff, the work is being done in several sequential steps. And, although he is not required to certify the election until December 4, Dave Macdonald, the Alameda County Registrar of Voters, said that he wants to have all of the work done by November 21. To achieve that, he has a full staff working this weekend and on the holiday Monday. He said that they also worked on Wednesday after the election when traditionally most counties do not.

He explained that his staff processed as many early absentee ballots as they could and that is why we saw votes posted on their website one minute after the polls closed on Tuesday when no precincts had yet reported. Then results were updated as the precinct votes came in. What was left to be counted were all of the remaining absentee ballots, a large number of which were dropped off at the polling locations, and the provisional ballots.

Processing absentee ballots

The journey of an absentee ballot begins with a signature authorization. The unopened ballots are screened for a match between the signature the voter used when they registered and the signature on the ballot. If these match, the ballot gets sorted, opened and scanned. Once the ballot is opened, it is separated from the envelop with the voters information to protect its anonymity. Berkeley’s four-page ballot this year caused difficulties, as the envelopes are too thick for the signature verification machine compared to the other cities’ thinner ballots.

Ballots are screened for a match between the signature the voter used when they registered and the signature on the ballot. Photo: Tracey Taylor

If the signatures do not match, or the person signed it somewhere other than the signature line, it goes through a verification process. If there is no signature, the ballot cannot be counted. The verification process is focused on looking for similarities between the signatures with the goal of trying to find a match.  If a match cannot be found, the voter is contacted. The Registrar provided several anecdotes of people whose signature changed over time for a variety of reasons. However, his mission, as he described it, is to count every vote possible. In one case, he contacted a voter who had had a stroke and was now using the other hand to sign with. In that case, the voter was re-registered using his new signature.

Once the signatures are verified, the ballots are separated by hand into precinct bins. The speed at which the eight or 10 people in a bullpen do this is remarkable. Then the envelopes are opened and the ballots scanned.


A significant number of ballots get kicked from the scanner. The reasons can be anything from a coffee spill on the ballot or a wrinkle in the paper, to someone changing their mind and crossing out a mark or writing what they think of a candidate or measure on the ballot. These go to an area called Re-make where pairs of workers transfer the information from the spoiled ballot to a fresh one for scanning. Then they label the spoiled and new ballots for comparison in the event of a recount or challenge.

In the case of someone making a partial mark or gesture that the scanner kicks out — which happens more often that one would expect — the Re-makers try to determine the intent of the voter. If they can’t, that particular vote is not counted but the rest of the ballot is. During my visit, about 10 teams of two were re-making ballots.  Once the marks are transferred, they check it item-by-item, switch ballots, and check again. It is a focused and deliberate process, but because it involves making a determination in some cases, there are instances where candidates or supporters try to influence it.

Provisional ballots

Provisional ballots are cast when a voter is not on the Registrar’s List or votes out of precinct.  These ballots are kept separate and go through their own process of verification in a small room with 25 people working. Signature and registration are first verified, and in close races, this is often the most observed and contested process. I was told of instances where proponents of either side of an issue or candidate stand directly behind the poll workers and try to influence whether or not a provisional ballot should be counted. But the Registrar contended that the people working through the ballots do not care which side wins, they simply want to count as many votes as possible under the strict guidelines and be as accurate as possible.

With all of the ballots that still need to be counted, it will be many days before the fate of Measures S and T are known. But one thing became very clear to me watching the process: Dave Macdonald and his team take great care to make sure every vote that can be counted is counted.

Check out our Google Docs spreadsheet with scenarios on measures S and T.

Vote update: Yes on Measure T slips further behind [11.12.12]
Vote update: T slips down, 10,000 more votes counted [11.10.12]
Update on Measure T count: Now 5 votes up [11.09.12]
And then there was one: Measure T down to single vote [11.08.12]
Measure T gap narrows to 26 votes [11.07.12]
Remaining Berkeley votes could change close contests [11.07.12]
Live blogging the Berkeley elections: all the final results [11.06.12]
Measure T: Will it enhance or ruin West Berkeley? [10.29.12]

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