Confusion Over Mail-in Ballot Status Can Be Fixed for Fall, Company Says

A lot of Polk County voters were surprised, confused or angry Tuesday night when election results were released online but another part of the elections website indicated individual mail-in votes had not been counted yet. The company that manages the Polk elections office website said today that a simple step can alleviate the confusion in time for the Nov. 3 general election.

The issue came to light Tuesday night. Many Polk County voters who used mail-in ballots for the first time had been pleasantly surprised that they could go online to find out if their vote had been counted. But when they checked on Tuesday, most people got messages that their ballot had been received but not counted.

Concern turned to anger when unofficial results were released at 8:38 p.m. with a notation that vote-by-mail ballots had been “completely counted,” but the voter lookup system still told them their individual vote had not been counted yet.

Check Polk election results | LkldNow election night coverage

Polk Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards said today that 62,891 mail-in ballots had indeed been counted by the time results were released Tuesday night. But it wasn’t until today that Polk voters checking the website saw that their vote indeed had been counted.

So Edwards said she reached out to VR Systems, the Tallahassee company that provides software and web services to Polk and 65 other Florida elections offices, to find out how they’ll fix the problem.

Ben Martin, the company’s chief operating officer, told LkldNow that there’s a simple solution, and all elections office customers will be educated about it before the Nov. 3 general election.

Elections offices can check a box in the system that will change the status of successful mail-in voters to “counted” the second that official results are released on Election Night, he said.

Here’s the line on a voter’s individual page that shows the status of their mail-in ballot:

The default setting on the system is to show the voter as “counted” at midnight after the election had been completed. That had been adequate for most elections office prior to this year, he said.

What’s changed is that a combination of the coronavirus and worries about election fraud and postal system cutbacks heightened attention to the counting of mail-in ballots year.

In the company’s early years, the system showed votes as counted as soon as they were processed, but VR was asked to change that because votes aren’t officially counted until all votes have been tabulated, he said. At that point, VR added a “received” notification to the website to let voters know that the ballot had indeed reached the Supervisor of Elections, Martin said.

Checking your status

Edwards agreed that the “received” notification is a sign to a voter that their ballot is indeed ready to go. A ballot doesn’t show as received until elections officials have verified the voter’s signature and readied the ballot for tabulation. If there are any problems with a ballot, the elections office will contact the voter and rectify the issue before marking it received, she said.

“Once it’s received, unless you’ve heard from us, you’re good to go,” Edwards said.

Voters who want extra assurance can call the elections office at 534-5888 or email them at [email protected], she said.

Edwards emphasized that the voter records system that VR System accesses online is totally separate from the vote tabulation system, which is not connected to the Internet.

That arrangement protects voter privacy because a person’s name is not connected to their ballot after it is checked in as “received,” Edwards said.

The volume of mail-in ballots was unusually high on Tuesday, Martin said, and the company saw ways it can “optimize data flow.”

Polk just experienced its highest level of mail-in ballots for a primary election. The elections office sent out 115,035 vote-by-mail ballots — affecting just over one-quarter of the 452,202 registered voters countywide — and received 62,891 valid ballots back.

The previous record for a primary election in Polk was 44,666 vote-by-mail ballots in 2018. The highest number ever was 79,720 voting by mail in the 2016 presidential election.

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