The journey of a mail ballot: How your vote gets counted


The vast majority of San Diego voters cast their ballots by mail, while others submit them in person or in drop boxes. So what happens to your ballot after you‘ve cast it?

Under the new model according to the California Voting Rights Act, voters can cast their ballot in person at any of San Diego County’s 218 vote centers by mail or in an official drop box.

All registered voters began receiving mail ballots the week of Oct. 10. They have until Election Day, Nov. 8, to return them — but the earlier the better, said Cynthia Paes, the county’s registrar of voters.

“We’re asking voters: Don’t delay, don’t wait until Election Day,” Paes said. “Go ahead and make your choices, seal your ballot inside your security envelope.”

Voters can place their ballots in a ballot drop box, submit them at a vote center or mail them to the registrar through the U.S. Postal Service. “Sign your name to that envelope, and mail it back promptly,” Paes said.

Once you’ve cast your ballot, here’s what happens to it.

Ballots are sorted

Batches of ballots arrive daily at the registrar’s office, where they’re sent to the mail sorter — still sealed in their envelopes — for processing.

There, rows of machines scan the signatures on the envelopes and drop them into trays of 100 to 200. Those trays go into a secure storage room, and the image on the envelope is sent to the signature verification team.

For each ballot, members of that team pull up the signature scanned by the machines and compare it with the signature from the person’s voter file, as recorded in their registration record.

“We’ll have a team of trained election workers that go through each and every signature on each and every envelope and do a side-by-side comparison,” Paes said.

If a signature doesn’t match the one on file, the registrar sends a letter to the voter explaining the situation and asking them to sign and return a form verifying that the signature is theirs and that they did in fact vote with their ballot.

Votes are extracted

Once the signature has been verified, it is sent to the extraction room, where workers remove ballots from envelopes either manually or using extraction machines, then box them up and take them to the tabulation room.

If a ballot is damaged — say, torn or stained with coffee — election staffers remake it so it can be scanned. Working in teams of two, they duplicate the exact choices of the original ballot on a fresh sheet.

“They have one that calls out the contest, while the other marks the ballot,” Paes said. “Then they switch places, and they verify the work. Once the ballot’s complete, they print it out.”

The original ballot and remade ballot are both coded, she said, “so during a recount or a challenge, that original can always be pulled out so you can see the voter’s original markings.”

Votes are counted

Next, ballots are tabulated by machines that count the votes. Over the course of the weeks, the final counts are scanned into the system but aren’t seen by anyone — even the registrar — until election night. Shortly after the polls close at 8 p.m., the first results are released.

Meanwhile, poll workers from the county’s 218 vote centers are packing and delivering in-person ballots, as well as mail ballots submitted at vote centers on Election Day. Those ballots are counted and reported later on election night, and the remaining results will be tabulated and released over the coming days.

Voters can track their ballots on the registrar’s website at Each step of the process involves teams of two workers to ensure accuracy and security.

“And remember, every step of this process is publicly observable,” Paes said. “Observers from campaigns, from the political parties, from organized groups or just individuals can come in and observe these processes.”