SIOUX CITY | With the Nov. 8 election less than a month away, election officials in Woodbury County this week started testing voting machines to make sure they accurately record voters' choices for president and a number of state and local offices.
The county has 52 ballot-counting machines and 46 auto-mark machines-- for the hearing and sight impaired, Auditor and Commissioner of Elections Pat Gill said. Each machine, purchased 10 years at $5,000 a piece, is normally stored in the basement of the courthouse.
Starting Monday, election officials, using sample ballots, have been filling out every possible combination of choices voters could make. After running the ballots through counting machines, they then verify the printed results.
"At a minimum, we run 75 ballots" through each machine, said Steve Hofmeyer, the county's deputy commissioner of elections.
Hofmeyer said when a machine reads a ballot, it then separates the ballots that have strictly votes for registered candidates on the left in the machine's holding cabinet, and puts ballots with write-ins on the right.
"We run them through face-up, face-down, head-first, foot-first, to make sure they sort properly," Hofmeyer said.
At each of the 44 precincts in the county, there is one ballot-counting machine and one auto-mark machine. There are eight backup ballot counters, and two spare auto-markers, Gill said.
Then, once the machine tests accurately, two staff members sign the results while still in the machine's result dispenser, and the paper is cut diagonally-- splitting the signatures. The signed paper is left in the dispenser until election day to verify the machine has not been tampered with since the testing. Hofmeyer said that in every election-- whether it's for school board, city council or a special election in the county-- the machines go through the same testing process.
BIG TURNOUT FORECAST
Hofmeyer said the auditor's office has been "bombed" with processing mailed absentee ballots, as well as ballots from early voting that is taking place in the courthouse rotunda. He said that those premature ballots will be counted the Monday before the election, and the results will be sealed in a sealed affidavit envelope until election day.
When the polls close at 9 p.m. on election day, the verification of the results is checked multiple times, before it is certified.
"At the end of (election) night, the results tape is printed out and then (election workers) call the unofficial results to us so we can get them...right away, but then there is an election card inside each machine and we have guys with the sheriff's department run out on routes and pick all of those up so I can download them into the computer," Hofmeyer said. "It's still considered unofficial, but I can download them and upload them to the Secretary of State's Office that night. It still remains unofficial until the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors does their canvas of the election a week later."
The budgeted cost for this year's election is $257,000, Gill said, for what he predicts will be one of the biggest voter turnouts in the county's history. And, after this year's election, he said the county will look into purchasing more updated equipment with the $500,000 that is budgeted. Gill said since there is a highly combative presidential election at hand, there will be a turnout of over the typical 45,000 people in a presidential election year.
"We have been looking at possibly thinking about getting (new voting equipment) this year before the general election," Hofmeyer said. "But when I talked with Pat he said maybe since it is possibly the biggest general election we've had, we probably shouldn't spring new equipment out."
Since results are collected by precinct and some districts overlap, there are 73 different ballot styles in the county, Gill said.
Hillary Clinton and every Democrat running for office will have their name listed first on ballots. That is because, under Iowa law, it is up to the auditor for each county to choose the order, and Gill, is a Democrat.
TOO LATE FOR CHANGES
Recently, some Republican leaders have called for their presidential nominee, Donald Trump, to step down from the candidacy after he made crude comments about women on a live microphone that was released on Friday. He has since denounced to step down, but, even if he does, his name will still be on the ballot.
"We are past the deadline for anybody to withdraw from the ballot," Hofmeyer said. "If for some reason he did withdraw, or the party talked him into stepping down, his name would still be on the ballot. There is no way we can go back and change it now. It would have to be a write-in. Likewise, we are passed the point to add anybody to the ballot."