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One Ballot’s Journey: How Absentee And Mail-In Ballots Are Counted In Missouri

A record-breaking 628,000 Missourians have already voted either by absentee or mail-in ballots. But casting the ballot is only the first part. Election authorities still need to process the vote for it to count.

As of Tuesday, a record-breaking 628,000 Missouri voters have already cast ballots ahead of Election Day. Thousands of voters are steering clear of polls to avoid catching or spreading the coronavirus, which reached record levels of new cases and deaths in the state this month.

The state has followed a seismic shift in American voting patterns. Missouri lawmakers in June expanded vote-by-mail options to make it easier for voters to cast ballots before Election Day, Nov. 3. Under the new laws, the number of voters casting absentee ballots doubled previous election records. In both the 2016 and 2012 general elections, fewer than 300,000 Missourians voted absentee.

Claims by President Donald Trump that voting by mail would lead to widespread ballot fraud have been proven baseless, but some voters still question how secure it is to vote in advance of Election Day.

So, what happens after you cast an absentee or mail in ballot? The process varies slightly from county to county in Missouri, based on the technology and staffing available at local election authorities, but all ballots follow roughly the same path. To clarify what that looks like, here’s the journey that mine is taking in St. Louis County.

I joined the more than 120,000 voters in St. Louis County who cast absentee or mail-in ballots this election.

There are three types of advance voting ballots in Missouri this year: mail-in, absentee and military absentee (those envelopes are yellow). All three types end up in the same place: a county election authority sorting room where workers organize the ballots by type.

A bipartisan team then scans the bar code on each ballot envelope to register it as received. The bar code would also tell officials if I had already cast another ballot (Don’t worry. I didn’t). Then, those teams check for the voter’s signature and, when required, a notary’s signature. If an envelope is missing a signature, election employees can call a voter to either come in to the election authority and fix it or vote in person at their Election Day polling site. However, I also heard from some county election authorities that they wouldn’t have adequate staffing to make calls this close to Election Day.

The verified ballots then must sit until five days before Election Day. On Thursday, election workers could begin prepping ballots to be counted.

On Thursday, teams of bipartisan election workers in St. Louis County started opening absentee and mail-in ballots. They double-check ballots for stains, smeared ink or tears. If a ballot has one of these issues, it cannot run through the ballot scanner. A bipartisan team would then transcribe the same vote onto a new ballot to ensure the scanner registers that vote.

After the bipartisan team signs off on the ballots, election workers in St. Louis County will scan and upload them onto USB drives. The technology used varies from county to county.

At 7 p.m. on election night, officials can start finalizing and publishing absentee and mail-in ballot counts. In St. Louis County, the USB drives storing ballot scans are plugged into computers and tabulated. Election authorities in other counties may start counting vote-by-mail ballots as soon as polls open, but no results can be published before 7 p.m.

1) Vote-by-mail ballots are only counted for close races. FALSE

Some people mistakenly believe absentee and mail-in ballots only function as tiebreakers for close races. In reality, absentee ballots are usually the first results posted for elections. Many St. Louis-area election officials said they still plan on publishing vote-by-mail results first, even with the historic number of ballots to process.

2) Election workers will just throw my ballot away. FALSE

Local election authorities have established safeguards to protect your vote-by-mail ballot. The main one is that every ballot that is touched must be reviewed by a bipartisan team, so a Democrat and a Republican are holding each other accountable.

3) I can turn my ballot in after Election Day. FALSE

Missouri law says all ballots must be turned in by 7 p.m. on Nov. 3. Any ballot that arrives after that time will not be counted. If you still have an absentee ballot at this point, drop it off to your local election authority in person, don’t mail it in. If you have a mail-in ballot, you cannot drop it off in person, but you can bring it to a polling place on Election Day and surrender it. Then you can vote the old fashioned way, in person.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

Copyright 2020 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit .

David Kovaluk / St. Louis Public Radio /

David Kovaluk / St. Louis Public Radio /

David Kovaluk / St. Louis Public Radio /

David Kovaluk / St. Louis Public Radio /

David Kovaluk / St. Louis Public Radio /

David Kovaluk / St. Louis Public Radio /

Kayla Drake
David Kovaluk
David Kovaluk is a visual artist living in St. Louis. He has a Bachelor's degree in photography from Webster University, and he currently works for St. Louis Public Radio as their creative everyman. His day-to-day responsibilities tend to be a mashup of graphic design, web design, photography and any other visual design challenge the station can throw at him. David is decidedly a cat person, loves a good DIY project, collects vintage cameras and lenses, and believes fluorite is the most beautiful mineral.
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