Once you push the “cast ballot” button on your voting machine, your choices are copied to a memory card inside the machine. Then what? (Erica A. Hernandez/AJC)

Even with electronic voting, counting ballots lasts into the night

Slide in the plastic yellow card. Tap candidate names on the screen. Click “cast ballot.” Collect your “I’m a Georgia voter” sticker.

Voting is fast. Counting ballots can be another story all together.

In the age of electronic voting machines, why aren’t ballots always counted at lightning speed?

It’s because some of the votes — absentee ballots — are counted by hand, and even digital ballots must be delivered in-person to central election offices.

“Even though it’s on electronic ballots, you still have to go through the process of checks and balances,” said Michael Barnes, director for The Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University. “If the voters know the results before they go to bed, it’s been a good election.”

Millions of Georgians will go to the polls Tuesday to vote for the nation’s president and local officials, and on various initiatives and constitutional questions.

But what happens after the polls close at 7 p.m., and why is it that tallying votes is sometimes a time-consuming affair?

How votes are counted on Election Night.
Photo: Robert Calzada

No internet allowed

One hurdle could be traffic.

Because of concerns about hacking, ballots are stored on 48 megabyte rectangular memory cards — one for each of the 27,000 electronic voting machines across the state. These memory cards are different from the yellow cards given to voters, which contain a code that tells the voting machine to display the ballot but don’t store any vote information.

When polls close on Election Day, poll workers shut down each electronic voting machine and verify that three numbers match: the paper certificates voters fill out when they arrive, the electronic list of voters and the total ballots recorded by the machines manufactured by Diebold Election Systems.

This process helps prevent fraud and ensure votes have been counted accurately.

Because voting machines don’t use the internet, there’s little risk of tampering, said DeKalb Elections Director Maxine Daniels.

“They can’t steal the election because those units are never connected to each other,” she said.

The memory cards at each precinct are sealed in a bag, then driven from precincts to county election offices.

That means precinct workers must deal with traffic. And we all know how bad that can be in metro Atlanta.

Once election officials have the memory cards in hand, they load them into a computer that counts every race.

Rush to the election office

That computer is called the Global Election Management System (GEMS), which uses the Windows 2000 Server operating system and displays lights on the screen that change from red to green when all of a precinct’s votes are counted.

Several times a night, each county copies its results to a secure USB flash drive and then uploads them to the Georgia Secretary of State’s website. The public can look online to see how the election is going, but the actual counts are kept in every county and never touch the internet.

The biggest batch of results pours in from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The state’s most populous counties, especially those in metro Atlanta, generally take the longest amount of time to report their results because they have the most polling places and ballots.

One precinct manager has a reputation for speediness.

Brian Derouen, who works in the Georgetown Square shopping center precinct in Dunwoody, is usually the first to arrive at the county’s central DeKalb elections office, usually getting there by 8 p.m.

“It’s not like I’m trying to have a race, but it’s important to be efficient,” said Derouen, whose precinct workers have managed 20 years of elections together. “We use a lot of teamwork. Our goal is to get it done.”

When a memory card can’t be read by the computers, or if a card gets lost, that can lead to delays. In those cases, election workers have to bring the original voting machine — which stores a copy of all votes cast — to the central county election office.

Still, none of these potential pitfalls is the biggest reason for late nights of vote counting.

Back to paper

Absentee voting by mail usually causes the most significant delays. Why? Because it’s done on paper ballots.

One at a time, these ballots are fed into optical scanning machines, a tedious effort that takes many hours, even with numerous scanners and election workers whittling down the piles.

“The whole process is more labor intensive,” said Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler. “We don’t expect to be finished until sometime in the wee hours of the night.”

Some states use machines that can process bundles of paper ballots at a time, but they’re more expensive.

“It’s a slow process,” Daniels said. “It’s so unpredictable” how long it will take.

Sometime in the middle of the night, likely after 2 a.m., almost all votes will be counted.

But even then, results aren’t official until all military, overseas and provisional ballots are accounted for and election systems audited.

The election isn’t really over until results are certified a week or more later.

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