Approximately three months before Election Day, the Department of Elections begins working with the City’s ballot printing and assembly vendor to prepare vote-by-mail (VBM) packets. Each VBM packet includes a bilingual ballot (English and Chinese, Spanish, or Filipino), an instructional insert, a postage-paid return envelope with a barcode linked to the recipient’s registration record (this allows for the envelope to be tracked while protecting the secrecy of the voted ballot inside), and an “I Voted” sticker. All registered voters in California will receive VBM packets automatically for all elections held in 2021.
Beginning approximately five weeks before Election Day, Department of Elections’ employees begin conducting rigorous testing of all of San Francisco’s ballot processing equipment. This process, called “Logic and Accuracy Testing,” ensures that the equipment is counting the votes for each ballot contest accurately. Throughout the testing process, a “Logic and Accuracy Board,” comprised of San Francisco registered voters, observes this testing and verifies test results against hand tallies.
To find out more or join the San Francisco Logic and Accuracy Board, contact email@example.com.
Vote-by-mail packets are mailed out.
Approximately 45-60 days before Election Day, VBM packets are delivered to all registered military and overseas voters via email, fax, or mail, according to each voter’s preferred delivery method.
Approximately 29 days before Election Day, the United States Postal Service (USPS) begins delivering VBM packets to all local registered voters. By law, VBM packets cannot be forwarded, so if a VBM packet is returned as “undeliverable”, the Department of Elections will flag the voter’s registration record as “inactive” and attempt to notify the voter.
The Department of Elections regularly updates its voter registration files with information from authorized third party sources, including the National Change of Address database and the Department of Motor Vehicles. If such a source indicates a voter has moved, the Department of Elections will update the voter’s record and attempt to notify the voter.
Shortly after VBM packets go out, voters begin to return their voted VBM ballots to the Department of Elections. To be counted, VBM ballot envelopes returned by mail must be postmarked on or before Election Day and VBM envelopes returned in person to a voting center, polling place, or drop-off station must be dropped off by 8 p.m. on Election Day. By law, late ballots cannot be counted, so it is important to return your ballot on time!
Department of Elections’ employees begin processing returned VBM ballots using sorting machines that separate VBM ballot return envelopes by precinct. During this process, the system captures a digital image of each envelope and links that image to the record of the voter to whom the envelope was sent using the envelope’s barcode number.
If an envelope is damaged and the machine is unable to read the barcode, or if the envelope sorting machine is unable to detect the presence of a signature on an envelope, the machine will divert the envelope for manual review and processing. Ballot return envelopes that have been successfully scanned and sorted by the equipment, as well as those processed by manual review teams, proceed to the signature review team.
Signatures on vote-by-mail envelopes are reviewed.
The Department of Elections’ registration database contains one or more signature samples for every San Francisco voter. For a VBM ballot to be counted, the signature on the voter’s ballot return envelope must compare to at least one signature in the voter’s record. If a comparable signature is found and the database shows the voter has not cast another ballot, Department of Elections’ staff will accept the ballot and update the voter’s record.
If no comparable signature is found, staff will challenge a VBM ballot. (Before challenging any VBM ballot for a signature-related reason, the ballot envelope signature is reviewed by three different staff members and compared to all signatures in the voter’s record.) If a VBM ballot is challenged, the Department of Elections will attempt to notify the voter via mail, email, and/or phone. A voter may “cure” their challenged ballot by signing a challenge form and returning it to the Department of Elections by mail, email, fax, or in person to any polling place or voting center.
To add a new signature to your voter record, reregister at registertovote.ca.gov or complete a paper registration form.
Accepted ballots are removed from envelopes and scanned.
To remove VBM ballots from envelopes efficiently and securely, Department of Elections’ employees feed the envelopes through high-speed extraction machines that slit the envelopes open. The ballot cards are then removed from the envelopes; during this process, to protect voter secrecy, Department of Elections’ employees keep voter information face down. Next, staff flatten the ballot cards and insert them into ballot scanning equipment that creates a digital image of each ballot card.
Ballot card images are then transferred to a tabulation computer through an isolated secure network. The computer tallies the selections for candidates and measures on each ballot card image, and creates a log of how the selections were interpreted by the voting system.
Department of Elections' employees test the scanning and tabulation equipment daily throughout the ballot processing period, as well as before each election, to ensure the equipment is functioning properly.
By law, ballot processing equipment is never connected to an outside network, the internet, or wireless technology.
Ballots are remade or adjudicated as necessary.
Some ballots must be “remade” before being scanned and tallied by the voting system, including ballots that are torn, bent, or otherwise physically damaged, ballots returned by fax by military and overseas voters, and ballots marked and printed using the accessible vote-by-mail system. Working in teams of two, Department of Elections’ employees duplicate voter choices onto new ballot cards that are subsequently scanned and tallied.
Some ballots that have irregular or ambiguous marks must be “adjudicated,” or reviewed, in order to determine voter intent. For example, when the voting system detects a write-in vote, more than one vote in a “Vote for One” contest, or a stray mark on a ballot card, the system sends an image of the card to an adjudication station. At the adjudication station, two Department of Elections’ employees work together to interpret the irregular mark(s) using an illustrated guide and a set of standardized rules to ensure proper and consistent interpretation; each adjudication decision is automatically logged.
Preliminary election results are tabulated and reported.
Only after the close of polls on Election Night can the Department of Elections begin to release preliminary election results reports. These reports are comprised of results from VBM ballots returned and processed before Election Day, as well as ballots cast by voters at polling places on Election Day.
Ballot processing continues until all valid votes are counted, including VBM ballots postmarked by Election Day, challenged ballots cured by voters (before the deadline), and provisional ballots cast by eligible voters.
Election results are certified.
The Department of Elections releases final election results approximately one month after each election, following the completion of an official “canvass”, or audit, which includes a manual tally of ballots from one percent of precincts.
Along with these results, the Department of Elections posts images of all voted ballot cards on its website, as well as the logs showing how the system interpreted the selections on each card.
Notice: Per Senate Bill 29, all registered California voters will automatically be mailed ballots for all elections through the end of 2021.
How does voting by mail work in San Francisco?
Click the numbers below or use a screen-reader to follow the journey of a vote-by-mail ballot as it makes its way from the printer to a voter’s mailbox and then on to the Department of Elections for counting.