The process to prepare ballots to be tabulated for the June 9 primary began on Friday in Stutsman County, said Nicole Meland, county auditor/chief operating officer and election administrator.

The county sent out 5,790 absentee ballot applications and 3,809 ballots had been returned as of early Friday afternoon, she said. That’s already more ballots cast than in the 2018 primary, when 3,528 people voted.

This year’s primary vote is entirely by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic. Ballots have to be postmarked by Monday, June 8, or returned by 4 p.m. Tuesday, June 9, to be counted for the election. Meland isn’t sure when the votes will actually begin being tallied on Tuesday, noting it would depend upon how many ballots are returned on the day of the primary. But she said the new scanner machine received from the state that will be used to tabulate the ballots can process 40 ballots per minute.

“Even though we’re scanning all of these through the tabulation machine, we don’t actually see any results,” she said.

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No election results can be reported until after 7 p.m. Tuesday, she said. The North Dakota Secretary of State office won’t be posting results until after 8 p.m. Meland expects the county will post results before then but said elections in small towns in the county will not be on either website but instead be reported to city auditors in those communities.

The Jamestown Sun’s website and newspaper will also post election results. Election results are unofficial until the canvassing board meets to certify them on Monday, June 15, Meland said.

Eleven employees from the offices of auditor, treasurer, recorder and tax director - the offices located on the main floor of the Stutsman County Courthouse - are processing the ballots, Meland said. Those offices closed to the public starting Friday for that purpose and expected to remain closed through Tuesday.

She said late Friday afternoon that about 3,600 ballots had been processed.

"It's gone really, really well for us to get through this many," she said. "I didn't know what to expect but apparently my staff are a bunch of rock stars."

Voters received a ballot application in the mail, which they had to return to get a ballot. Once the voter returned the ballot, the barcode sticker on the return envelope was scanned, which then reported it as returned, she said. The original application was attached to the returned ballot, which is used to compare signatures.

A Forum News Service story reported Thursday that a federal judge granted an injunction Thursday that bans election officials in the state from rejecting any mail-in ballot on the basis of a “signature mismatch” without having in place adequate notice and remedy procedures. The League of Women Voters of North Dakota and other plaintiffs sought the injunction in U.S. District Court as part of a lawsuit, saying voters weren’t notified when their ballot was rejected “due to a technical error such as a signature mismatch” and there was no way for voters to fix that type of situation, the story said.

Meland said, under an agreement between the parties in the case that the judge approved Friday, procedures were established to deal with the "signature mismatch" issue. The county auditor or other county official would try to reach the voter by phone or letter before the canvass board to verify the signature. The voter has until the canvass board meets to verify the signatures. If the voter doesn't respond by the time the board meets and the canvass board determines the signatures do not match, the ballot won't be counted, the court order said.

Meland said there were 65 ballots with signatures in question Friday.

Meland said a report was run to ensure that each ballot was scanned into the system.

“It will act as a poll book, basically,” she said.

The ballots after being checked on the report go to two judges who will look at signatures and determine whether the application and ballot match. If the signatures are believed to match, the ballot and application are given to another judge who will open the return envelope, which has a secrecy envelope with the ballot in it. That secrecy envelope is passed to another judge, who will pull out the ballot and initial it. The ballot is then placed into a container to be tabulated on Tuesday.

“We store all of them in the vaults,” she said.

Meland said the point of this process involving more than one person is for the voter.

“... the whole purpose of voting is that your ballot is secret,” she said. “And so the purpose (of multiple steps to get to the ballot) would be that one person doesn’t know how somebody voted which is why there’s so many different steps to be taken to pull the ballot out of the secrecy envelope.”

The coronavirus pandemic changed not only the election to vote by mail but also affected who would be working during it, Meland said. Many of the election officials typically hired to work would be more at risk for coronavirus, she said.

“That’s why we don’t have any outside election workers that were appointed by the parties and they all understood and were fine with it,” she said.

People with an election-related question or who wish to leave a non-election related message for the county offices that are closed for the ballot processing and tabulating are asked to call (701) 252-9035 or email auditor@stutsmancounty.gov.