Election administration explained: Reconciliation

By: - July 27, 2022 6:01 am
Voting sign in 4 languages

Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

This is part of an occasional series on election administration. Read part 1, “Who does what?” Part 2, “Who can vote in Minnesota?” Part 3: “How and why polling places are computerized.” Part 4: “How absentee voting works.” 

Election workers count. Not just in the figurative sense of mattering, but in the literal sense of one, two, three. And they don’t just count votes. They routinely count all kinds of paperwork as a pervasive mechanism for ensuring elections run as they ought to.

In particular, election workers check that counts that ought to match up do match up, once legitimate causes of deviation are accounted for. That’s known as reconciliation — not quite like an estranged couple getting over their differences, but still, a bringing back together.

For example, the election judges in a polling place trade each signed-in voter a blank ballot in exchange for their voter receipt. So the ballots and receipts start out in correspondence. At the end of the day, the election judges count both the voted ballots from the ballot box and the spindled receipts or voter signatures. These counts ought to come back together, their equality showing that the voted ballots correspond to the voters who signed in.

In most polling places, the counts of ballots and voter receipts exactly match. Occasionally they are off by one or two, which the election judges can often resolve just by counting again. Perhaps two sheets of paper stuck together, for example. But sometimes even careful, repeated counts show a small difference. That’s when the other aspect of reconciliation comes into play: the accounting for legitimate sources of difference.

All day long, the election judges have been logging any anomalous events. For example, a voter may have signed in but then decided to leave without voting. These log entries ought to account for any difference between the voter receipts and the voted ballots. As rare and small as the initial discrepancies are, the unexplained discrepancies are even rarer and smaller.

Election administrators review these residual failures of reconciliation carefully for patterns. For example, they may suggest areas where the training of election judges needs improvement. No human enterprise runs flawlessly, but election administrators know the way to come close is by taking the opportunities for improvement.

The election judges in each polling place also check that ballots aren’t mysteriously appearing or disappearing in the course of the day. This ballot accounting requires more counting, both before the polling place opens and after it closes.

The number of blank ballots at the start should equal the number of ballots at the end, added across the various categories. Some are still blank. Some have been cast in the ballot box. And others have been set aside as “spoiled” — for example if a voter makes a mistake and trades their ballot in for a fresh one. The election judges count each of these categories.

As usual, surface-level discrepancies in the ballot accounting may be explained by log entries. For example, a voter may have run off with their ballot rather than casting it. Another more common and less dramatic occurrence is that the election judges may have opened a sealed package of 100 blank ballots, only to find that it has 99 or 101. The machinery at the printing company doesn’t count as carefully as the election judges do.

Reconciliation isn’t limited to polling places. The election workers who process absentee ballots count, too. In fact, they count during both phases of the processing. The first phase takes place soon after voters return their sealed signature envelopes. Absentee ballot board members check that they meet the criteria for acceptance. The second phase takes place in the final week before Election Day. Board members open the envelopes and process their contents. Each phase has its own reconciliation.

When a team of absentee ballot board members has verified that a signature envelope meets the criteria for acceptance, they mark that onto the envelope and also record it in the Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS). At the end of each work session, the accepted envelopes are sorted out by precinct and made ready for secure storage. But before they get locked away, it pays to check the physical envelopes against the SVRS records.

This reconciliation of accepted signature envelopes may seem superfluous, given that the whole process takes place in a controlled-access setting. There aren’t any voters who could do weird things like leave with their ballots still in hand. But with so many envelopes being processed from a whole range of precincts, it’s easy to make a small mistake. Finding the mistakes promptly using reconciliation allows them to be fixed before any harm is done.

For example, if SVRS shows fewer envelopes accepted than are physically present, that’s a good sign the data-entry was flubbed. Maybe a clerk missed by one in selecting the envelope’s new status from the drop-down list that SVRS provides. If they recorded the envelope as merely received rather than accepted, that would be a problem. But the comparison with the physical envelopes allows that problem to be found and fixed.

Or consider the possibility that a precinct has one fewer envelope ready for storage than SVRS indicates, while another precinct has one too many. You can probably guess what slip would account for that. But the goal isn’t just to understand why the numbers don’t match: It’s to hunt down the mis-sorted envelope and put it where it belongs, so that the right ballots are processed in each precinct.

Later, the accepted signature envelopes come back out of storage, one precinct at a time, and absentee ballot board members start opening them up for tabulation. Just as polling-place election judges ensure that ballots match up with signed-in voters, here the goal is to ensure the tabulated ballots correspond to accepted signature envelopes.

Board members remove an opaque tan secrecy envelope from each signature envelope and check that they’ve got the same number. Then they set the signature envelopes aside, open the secrecy envelopes, and remove the ballots. Again, they compare counts: the number of ballots should equal the number of envelopes.

As in a polling place, there are exceptional cases that can account for winding up with slightly fewer ballots to tabulate than there are accepted signature envelopes. An envelope may be empty, or it can contain more than one voted ballot, in which case Minnesota law specifies that none of them can be tabulated. If anything like that happens, it gets logged. Accountability is about having an account of what transpired.

This ought to give some sense of typical processes, though there are more counts and more comparisons of counts. For example, damaged ballots that are carefully duplicated and then set aside need to be accounted for, and the count of physical ballots need to be compared to the tabulator’s count of how many it has scanned.

The bottom line is this: When a professional election administrator says everything checks out, they are saying a lot. They’ve brought a lot of evidence together. You can count on it.

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Max Hailperin
Max Hailperin

Max Hailperin is a professor emeritus of mathematics, computer science, and statistics at Gustavus Adolphus College. He earned his Ph.D. at Stanford University and S.B. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since 2010, he has specialized in the intersection between election technology and election policy, and in 2014, he was awarded the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) Medallion Award “in recognition of his service and contributions to election-related technology and legislation.”