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Ada County Clerk's Office brings in a half-million-dollar 'lifesaver' that'll process a record number of ballots

Just in time for the 2020 November general election, the Ada County Clerk's Office installed "Bessie," a state-of-the-art machine to handle thousands if ballots.

ADA COUNTY, Idaho — To process a record number of absentee ballots, the Ada County Clerk’s Office is utilizing a brand new state-of-the-art machine.

The office got a special COVID-19 election grant from the federal government to pay for the $500,000 machine that is already being put to great use.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t want to imagine running this election without this machine,” said Saul Seyler, Ada County's elections director.

Ask anyone on the Ada County elections team, and they will tell you the same thing. The machine, nicknamed "Bessie," has a lot of lights and gadgets which look cool. But what really makes this machine so valuable is that it processes thousands upon thousands of absentee ballots that all used to be done by hand.

“It allows us to actually scan the ballots in and take a picture of the ballots when we first get them in," Seyler said. "It also dates and time stamps the ballots, which then we can start the receiving process after that,” Seyler said.

The Ada County ballot business for Bessie is booming.

“We just eclipsed the 50,000-mark today, and we actually probably got another 10,000 in house today,” Seyler said.

The process of taking in and sorting every single ballot is very technical, but takes a huge burden off of staff, who can then focus on other duties.

“This is a very big time-saver," Seyler said. "We would have 30 to 40 staff members in right now just trying to date and time stamp items. This allows us to save multiple, multiple hours and it ensures accuracy at a level we didn’t have before."

RELATED: Ada County schools partner with county clerk to host COVID-aware election day voting sites

Every ballot needs to be verified, logged and filed so votes can be sorted by precinct. Of course, every ballot will have the presidential election on it, but there are lots of local races that need to be sorted so they are ready to be counted on election night. Each ballot runs through the machine three times.

“The first time it’s simply taking a picture of the signature but also scanning the barcode," Seyler said. "Second, it is looking for the barcode and separating out things that maybe we have a question on the signature or there isn’t a signature on the ballot. The third pass, we know all the ballots have been validated and at that pass, we take it down to the precinct level."

The machine captures signatures on the ballot so the election team can compare it to what is on file. Every signature is validated by a real person. No offense to all the human members of the election team, but this machine will move a lot faster on the more than 140,000 absentee ballots issued in the county.

“The machine if it’s running full speed can run about 20,000 pieces an hour,” Seyler said.

With a record amount of absentee ballot returns, the machine helps speed up the daunting process.

“We used to actually have to hand-scan every barcode before we could start the signature process,” Seyler said.

Still, the incredible number of absentee ballots for the 2020 November election provides a challenge.

“It’s a little overwhelming when you first see it but we’ve got the systems down in a place where we can accommodate that,” Seyler said.

Simply put, the team here in Idaho’s most populated county is elated to have Bessie, the marvelous machine.

“It would be a very, very hard logistical challenge so this is a real lifesaver for us,” Seyler said.  

Voter Guide 2020: Everything you need to know about the November election in Idaho

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