It’s called the MBV1000 and it can process up to 100 return ballot envelopes per minute. It scans the voter ID barcode and captures the voter’s signature for analysis by advanced signature recognition technology.
This year’s municipal primary election is the maiden voyage for the MBV — mail ballot verifier — in Tooele County.
The 2019 election is the first municipal election in the county to be conducted by mail. The 2018 general election, which included county offices, was conducted by mail.
The MBV was part of the new equipment purchased by the county in 2018 when it made the switch to voting by mail, but the device was not ready to be used in the 2018 election.
The switch to voting by mail was made for several reasons, according to Tooele County Clerk Marilyn Gillette.
It started with the need to replace old electronic voting machines, she said.
Almost half of the county was already voting by mail and most other counties in Utah were already voting by mail, according to Gillette.
Tooele County decided to join with the other counties in purchasing new equipment for counting vote by mail ballots instead of spending money replacing the old voting machines, Gillette said.
Mail-in precincts in Tooele County and statewide have a history of a higher rate of voter turnout, so part of the rationale of changing to vote-by-mail was also to increase voter participation, she said.
The almost 50 percent voter turnout in the 2018 primary, which Gillette believes is a new record for a primary election in the county, supported that claim, according to Gillette.
The MBV is part of the technology used to speed up vote counting while maintaining the integrity of the voting process, according to Gillette.
When voting by mail, voters mark their ballot, put it in an envelope, and then sign the outside of the envelope to verify their identity as the registered voter who completed the enclosed ballot.
When ballots are received at the clerk’s office and they are ready to be counted, the strip of paper on the outside of the ballot envelope that covers the signature is removed.
Batches of 50 ballots are processed in the MBV, which reads the barcode and captures an image of the signature.
The barcode is a unique ballot and voter identifier. If the barcode indicates the ballot is ineligible, the MBV kicks the envelope out into a tray for exceptions.
For example, if a voter calls the clerk’s office and said they didn’t get a ballot in the mail and requests a new ballot to be sent, the clerk’s office marks the barcode associated with the first ballot as ineligible.
This process makes sure that only one ballot per voter is counted, according to Gillette.
The bar code data is also separately uploaded by the clerk’s office into a database that allows voters to log into the state website — vote.utah.gov — and verify that their ballot was received and validated by the county clerk.
The MBV also kicks out a ballot into the exception tray when it can’t read the barcode, find a signature, or if the envelope is too thin — indicating it doesn’t contain a ballot.
The exceptions are then manually followed up by the clerk’s office.
The signature is captured by the MBV as an electronic image and sent to a secure computer where the signature is verified by using the latest signature verification technology.
The county is able to determine the level of confidence before the software rejects a signature match.
For ballots that can’t be verified by the computer, the software displays the scanned ballot signature along with an electronic copy of the signature the clerk’s office has on file.
A clerk’s office employee reviews the signatures; if they match, the ballot is processed.
The clerk’s office has access to up to five different signatures for each voter.
If no match is possible, the ballot is pulled and the voter is contacted. If possible, the error is cleared up and the ballot is counted.
“I call the voter and we hear things like the ballot was signed by a spouse,” Gillette said.
After the signatures are verified, the ballot envelope is cut open by a machine, the ballot is manually removed and unfolded.
The top envelope of the batch of 50 is affixed with a sticker with a report printed by the computer. The report includes the date, time, number and status of the ballots.
Once a ballot is removed from the envelope there is nothing on the ballot identifying the voter. This preserves the anonymity of the voter, making it impossible to look up how any individual voter voted, Gillette said.
The ballots are run through a reader that electronically captures a picture of each ballot and records the votes cast in its memory. The scanner can read 100 ballots in two minutes.
Ballots dropped off, received by mail, dropped off in a ballot return box, or at the clerk’s office prior to the close of the polls on election night are processed to this point — they are verified, opened, and scanned — but there is no vote count available.
After polls close, the information from the pre-scanned ballots are downloaded onto a memory stick and transferred to a secure computer that tabulates the votes.
If the software is unable to read a ballot, the ballot pops up on a screen. An election worker acting as an “adjudicator” can view a picture of the ballot. If the voter’s intent is clear, the adjudicator can direct the computer to count the vote as the voter intended.
Election workers bring in the ballots from poll locations and drop off boxes and they are processed similar to the ballots that were previously received by mail.
The MBV, the ballot scanner and the election computers are never connected to the internet, making it impossible for an outside hacker to get into the vote counting system, according to Gillette.
The county must keep the envelopes and ballots for at least 22 months so it can respond to random sample audit requirements from the State Elections office.
If needed the clerk’s office can also re-run the process and duplicate the vote results, Gillette said.
As of Tuesday morning as polls were opening, the County Clerk’s office had processed 3,578 ballots or 17.5% of all ballots mailed out.
In the 2017 municipal primary, voter turnout was 19.1%. The 2017 primary included Tooele and Grantsville cities. The 2019 primary includes Tooele City and Stansbury Park.