Starting at 7 a.m. on Nov. 8, Philadelphia election workers are going to have a lot to do.
They — and the machines they work with — will be focused on verifying, sorting, opening, flattening, and scanning tens of thousands of mail ballots returned by Philly voters at the city’s ballot processing facility along Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia.
It’s a different counting location than the one the city used in 2020, when election workers spent days tallying ballots at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Center City.
The current facility is also where the city stores its ballot marking devices for in-person voting, and there’s a strong focus on security, said Lisa Deeley, chair of the City Commissioners.
Securing Philly’s election equipment has been an issue in the past — in 2020, a laptop and several encrypted memory sticks were stolen from an election warehouse in East Falls. A Billy Penn reporter entered that same building a few days later and walked around unattended for several minutes before being escorted out. Officials added a few more security cameras to the facility right away, and eventually determined the theft had not been election tampering.
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The Roosevelt Boulevard facility has beefed up security to align with standards recommended by the Department of Homeland Security and Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management, according to Deeley. More security and modernization improvements are planned for the building in the coming years.
A lot of mail ballots are expected to be processed at the Northeast Philly facility: 154,385 Philadelphians have requested one as of Thursday, per the Pa. Dept. of State, and over 68,000 have already been returned. That’s already more than last year, when around 67k Philadelphians voted by mail, though many fewer than 2020’s mid-COVID presidential race, when around 365k opted to cast their ballot by mail. (The deadline to apply for a mail ballot is Tuesday, Nov. 1.)
By state law, the counting process — and the ballot prep work leading up to it — can’t start until the morning of the election. Once it kicks off though, Philly officials don’t plan on stopping it until the count is over — though it’s not clear exactly how long that could take, Deeley said.
“The one thing that I’ve learned about elections in the years that I’ve been an administrator is that the only thing you can predict about elections is that they’re often unpredictable,” she said. “I don’t want to be held to any particular day.”
What exactly does it take for all those ballots to travel from their enveloped form to a set of tallied votes in that yet-to-be-known amount of time?
Here’s the basic outline: Workers pass through metal detectors before entering a secure area.
They first run large stacks of envelope-enclosed ballots through a massive sorter machine that splits them into smaller piles.
From there, workers take the sealed ballots to “extractor” tables, where a machine slices open the outer envelope.
Workers manually remove the unopened inner “secrecy” envelopes one by one and place them into bins.
Those bins of secrecy envelopes then go through their own round at the extracting tables.
A machine slices open the envelopes, and a worker removes the actual, folded-up ballot.
Those stacks of ballots are taken to a table where workers manually flatten them out by “back-bending” them at the folds, Deeley said.
Finally, the flattened stacks of ballots are run through a scanner.