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How does election certification work in Missouri?

A person opens and examines ballots
File photo
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Kansas City Beacon
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican, has tried to respond to concerns about security by creating increased transparency in Missouri’s electoral process. Ashcroft has said the 2020 presidential election in Missouri was safe and secure, but he was still a strong advocate for a voting bill that the GOP-dominated legislature passed this year in the name of “election integrity.”

Some have raised suspicions about the security of the election process nationwide. In Missouri, election materials and the certification of the vote are constantly managed by a bipartisan team of election judges.

Missourians have been casting ballots for nearly two weeks, and election officials have been preparing for months, following intricate state laws associated with the election administration and certification process.

So what does happen to the votes of Missourians once they leave their polling places?

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican, has tried to respond to concerns about security by creating increased transparency in Missouri’s electoral process. Ashcroft has said the 2020 presidential election in Missouri was safe and secure, but he was still a strong advocate for a voting bill that the GOP-dominated legislature passed this year in the name of “election integrity.”

The new bill addressed issues that had been flagged as concerns, like ensuring that ballot tabulating machines cannot be connected to the internet. Also, the entire election process — from when you cast your ballot to when results are delivered to the secretary of state — is managed by a two-person team consisting of one Republican and one Democrat. When election equipment isn’t being utilized, it’s stored and locked away so it cannot be tampered with. After ballots are cast, they are stored and sealed for 22 months after the election.

The Beacon broke down the step-by-step process of how election certification works in Missouri.

1. Ballots are cast

Your ballot is cast as soon as you feed your responses into the tabulating machine. Tabulating machines are not connected to the internet. If your ballot is mismarked, such as casting two votes in one race, the tabulating machine will reject the ballot. Machines are tested at a public test two weeks before Election Day and are sealed afterwards to ensure security.

If your ballot is rejected and you’re still in your polling place, your old ballot would be spoiled, or voided, and you would be able to cast a new one. If you left quickly after feeding your ballot into the machine and did not know it was rejected, a bipartisan team of election judges would redo your ballot and follow your intent. If you over voted in a race and the bipartisan officials cannot tell which candidate you intended to vote for, that race would simply be left blank. Both ballots are kept for record-keeping purposes.

Chris Hershey, an election commissioner in Platte County, said machines are programmed to notify of any abnormalities.

“Machines are really calibrated to pretty tight standards. So if there’s a rip or marks on the side, it’s not going to accept the ballot,” Hershey said. “Each one of those ballots is numbered, so it’ll be like ‘spoiled #24’ and then the new ballot is going to be ‘duplicate #24.’”

2. Polls close, election officials start counting

Once the polls close, the election workers shut the ballot tabulating machines down and produce a report of votes cast in each machine. The report contains information like how many ballots were rejected, how many were cast overall and for which candidate or ballot issue.

Election judges record the vote totals in a “statement of returns.” They also record the number of rejected or spoiled ballots and the number of identification certificates signed. The statement of returns is then secured in a box provided by the secretary of state’s office. The returns for each precinct are also put onto a USB drive.

3. Returns taken to county election authority

A bipartisan team will take the USB drive with election results and deliver it to the county election authority, which will use the USB to begin uploading results online.

“There’s this huge push to get results out as soon as possible, like updates every 15 minutes, even though that’s not going to change what the final total is,” Hershey said. “But we do that so that it gives people a sense of where the voting is.”

These results aren’t official, though, as overseas and military voters have until noon the Friday after the election to get their ballots returned.

4. Hand recount

State law requires 5% of each county’s polling places to be recounted by hand to ensure that machines were operating correctly. A bipartisan team will randomly select polling sites to verify that tabulating machines were working properly.

5. Verification board meets

As soon as possible after the election, each local election authority will gather a verification board to check the count and certify the results of the election. In Platte County, this usually happens in the early afternoon on the Friday after the election, once military and overseas voters get their ballots back by the noon deadline.

The verification board can be the board of election commissioners in counties where such a board exists. But some counties don’t have a full board. In those instances, the county clerk and a bipartisan team of two verification judges certify the election. Local political parties recommend the verification judges, and the county clerk must appoint them at least a week before the election.

The verification board checks the tally sheets and statements of returns and compares those records with the Election Day tallies from election judges. If there are discrepancies, the verification board corrects what was submitted on Election Day. Those numbers become the new record, but both records are kept on file.

If a verification board, bipartisan committee, election authority or secretary of state finds evidence of fraud, it is to be immediately reported to the proper authorities.

6. Announcement of unofficial results

After a verification board has completed its work, it issues a statement announcing the results. The verification board has two weeks from Election Day to certify the returns.

The statement includes statistics such as the numbers of regular and absentee ballots cast in the election. After the statement is issued, the election authority mails or delivers to the secretary of state the report for their jurisdiction, broken down by polling place.

The election cannot be officially certified by local authorities and verification boards before noon on the Friday after Election Day.

7. Secretary of state convenes the board of canvassers

The secretary of state’s office will convene the state’s board of canvassers, which consists of the secretary of state and a panel of judges, to total the results of each election. The official, certified results cannot be announced any later than the second Tuesday in December.

8. Contests to results

Up until 30 days after the official announcement of election results by the secretary of state’s office, any candidate can file a petition in the appropriate circuit court challenging the results. For ballot questions, proponents or opponents of the question may hire counsel to represent them in a contest. The candidate would need to define what parts of the election they’d like to contest, provide facts to support their contest and, in some cases, pay for the cost of the recount.

If the court or legislative body hearing the contest finds there is evidence showing irregularities, they can order a recount of all votes brought into question.

The authority handling the contest notifies other election authorities responsible for the count in that particular contest, and requests all of their records and materials required for the recount. The lead authority can then compare things like voter signatures, test tabulating equipment or recount ballots that were saved for records purposes.

This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Meg Cunningham is The Beacon’s Missouri Statehouse reporter.
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