2024 Election: What happens to your ballot after it's mailed back?

With several important elections in 2024, nagging questions remain over election integrity.

In fact, figures from an Associated Press poll show only 44% of Americans have a great deal of trust in election results.

When Americans used to vote on Election Day, there were very few questions about the process. Nowadays, an overwhelming majority of voters in Arizona - 79% - are voting early using mail-in ballots, and that has created some doubts among some people.

We're taking you on a deep dive into exactly what happens to a mailed-in ballot.

What happens when you send off your ballot?

Voting is intensely personal, and when a voter puts their ballot in the mailbox, the hope is everyone who eventually handles it will handle it with care and honorable intentions.

When a ballot arrives at the post office, it remains there until Maricopa County election workers pick it up in large batches.

Bipartisan teams then transport the ballots to Runbeck Election Services, a Phoenix company singularly dedicated to mailing and processing ballots.

"They start off on the loading dock and come in," said Runbeck Election Services CEO Jeff Ellington. "There's a chain of custody and a hand off right there. The bipartisan team hands them off to our team. We have security there. Maricopa County will have a county sheriff."

Runbeck Election Services CEO Jeff Ellington and John Hook

Runbeck does this kind of work for 120 counties around the country, and their workers never open ballots. They simply scan the outside envelopes with massive machines that can process 12 ballots a second, equaling to 50,000 an hour.

Maricopa County outsources this because these machines are very expensive, and it's a huge job.

The machines scan the ballot envelope, focusing on two critical items: the barcode in the top right corner that is unique to each voter, akin to a ballot's "fingerprint." Only registered voters will get a barcode, and ballots from non-registered voters will be rejected.

The ballot scan is also overseen by a team of Democrats and Republicans or Independents.

"They'll watch the machines run all night, and so they're here watching," Ellington said.

"OK. Somebody says to you, they’re trying to inject ballots into the system. What would you tell them?" we asked Ellington.

"It’s impossible. There’s too many checks and balances," Ellington replied. "To think that everybody can get on board with something, and the counties can get on board, and that the state level will be on board, it's just unrealistic."

What happens after the barcode is scanned? 

The second critical item on the ballot is a voter's signature. The Runbeck machines digitally scan the signature and load it into the system, so election workers at Maricopa County Elections can start the signature verification process.

Firstly, the signature is reviewed by a first-level signature reviewer. The job is straightforward, and even a layperson can quickly identify whether a signature matches what’s on file. There are several things they look for, like the type of writing, speed of writing, style, spacing, size, proportion, slant, spelling and alignment.

If the signature is approved by a first-level signature reviewer, it will go on to a manager for a double check. A manager will also get ballots for review when a reviewer has concerns about the signature. In fact, this has happened 68,000 times in 2022.

If managers agree the signatures don’t match, the ballot goes on to curing, a process where election workers will try to contact a voter personally to find out if they are legit.

Workers first use the phone number on the ballot, and if there's no phone number, they will look up the voter in the voting records, and try to contact them in any way possible to determine if they are who they say they are.

In 2022, 18,000 ballots in Maricopa County went through the curing process, and out of that 18,000, voters themselves were able to verify identification for 15,000 of them, leaving 3,000 ballots that couldn’t be validated, and subsequently rejected.

Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer insists the system is secure, starting with the green return envelope with the unique voter barcode.

"This barcode does a few things. This is what allows you to track your ballot, but it also allows us to track you as a voter," said Richer.

"This is why people are not voting twice?" we asked Richer.

"If you ask for a different ballot packet or if you showed up in person, then we would say ‘you’ve already voted,’ because it's tied to your voter registration profile, and that drives everything in an election," Richer replied.

John Hook and Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer

The barcode and signature have been verified. Now what? 

Once Maricopa County validates the ballot barcode and the signature, a machine at election headquarters sands off the top of the envelope, so workers can easily remove it.

At the election headquarters, teams consisting of two people, each hailing from different political parties, remove ballots from the envelope. The first thing they check is that the serial number on the envelope matches the serial number on the actual ballot. This does not reveal the voter's identity.

If there’s a problem with a ballot - if someone spilled coffee on it, or if it's torn - tabulators will reject it. The ballot will then go to a bipartisan team consisting of two people from different parties to create a new, readable ballot that matches the voter's choices exactly. The spoiled one is then discarded.

Ballots are removed from the envelope only after voter identification is complete and verified.

Then, the counting begins, with paper ballots being placed into bins containing 200 ballots, and fed into the tabulators.

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Independent examiners test the tabulators before and after the election to ensure they are working properly, and accurately counting the votes. The tests are observed by at least two election staff members of different political parties, and they are also observed by representatives of competing political parties, candidates, the press, and the public via a 24-hour video feed.

The tabulators are not connected to the internet, and all the wiring is exposed and open along the ceiling to show it's not connected to any outside devices. This was also reaffirmed by several independent reviews after the 2020 election.

Once the tabulator records the vote, the totals are contained on the election management server. Only three people can access this secure room, badging in and out, and no one is allowed in alone.

Not even Richer.

In other words, a system of checks and balances.

Every step in the process is observed by members of the competing political parties. There's a verifiable paper audit trail for everything that happens to a ballot.

Finally, there is a hand count audit, conducted by the competing political parties to verify the machine results match the paper ballot vote count.

Richer insists fraud is exceedingly rare.

"So, I don't want anyone saying there’s not such a thing as fraud. I don't want anyone saying there’s a perfect election, but what we try to do, and I believe we're very good at it, is come up with processes that minimize that without creating an undue burden to the voter," Richer said.