When the new employee at the Jackson County Clerk's elections office gets warmed up sorting ballot envelopes, watch out.

When the new employee at the Jackson County Clerk's elections office gets warmed up sorting ballot envelopes, watch out.

"Right now, it's running at 12,960 an hour," said Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker. "But I've seen it do up to 19,000 an hour."

The worker is a state-of-the-art automatic Bell & Howell Co. ballot-sorting and signature-verification machine. It's being used for the first time in a general election in Jackson County.

Lights flash, gears roll and belts whir as ballot envelopes streak through in a blur.

"This saves a huge amount of time for us," Walker said. "The way this benefits the public is that we will get the results out quicker."

During the 2008 presidential election, the office had about a dozen human signature-verifiers working, she noted.

"Now we only have five," she said. "And they are doing it five times as fast as what we could do it before because they are not physically handling every ballot envelope. The less physical handling of the ballot envelopes the better.

"The way we used to do this was have signature-verifiers use a hand scanner to scan every single ballot envelope," she said. "They would take every ballot envelope and hold it up to compare it to the voter registration card signature on the screen."

With an estimated 100,000 ballot envelopes expected to be processed in this election, the automatic sorter is a big asset, she said.

The first results are expected at 8 p.m., Walker said, adding that it does help her staff if voters don't wait until the deadline before casting a ballot.

"Each ballot envelope has to go through this process whether you turned it in two weeks ago or election evening," she said.

Under a contract with the company, the county used a similar machine to test its potential in the May primary, and found it worked well, she said.

"We haven't purchased this machine," she said, noting that four other Oregon counties provided similar $100,000-plus machines had theirs paid for from federal Help American Vote Act funding.

"The state is still sitting on quite a few HAVA funds," she said.

"The sorter works like a big mail sorter at a mail processing facility," she said. "It reads the bar codes, takes a picture of the outer envelope and keys in on the signature."

The bar code contains such information as the precinct number, she noted.

The envelopes that pass the machine's test are then placed in "good" bins, she said.

"That means there has been nothing that causes them to be rejected," she said.

During a run of ballot envelopes on Monday, the lion's share of envelopes sailed through, but one popped into the bin marked "Wrong Ballot." It means the person voted on an inactive ballot, likely because of registration changes, she explained.

She estimated that fewer than 1 percent of the ballots are set aside for further review.

"We want to count every ballot that comes in," she said. "Anyone who gets a letter from us should not take it personal. The only way we have to determine if that person actually cast that ballot is by checking the signature on the outside of the ballot."

Often, as people age, a person's signature can change because of changing physical condition, she said.

"But we look at the mannerism of the signature in its entirety that we are looking at," she said.

If the machine does reject a ballot envelope, it is then checked by three human verifiers, with the final check falling to Donna Connor, the elections program manager who has been working in the department for 33 years, Walker said.

"Each ballot envelope goes through three steps before it is considered a good signature challenge," Walker said.

If a ballot envelope fails all three human tests, the voter has 10 days — Nov. 16 in this case — to rectify the signature problem, Walker said.

"Most of the time it is as easy as re-registering to vote," she said.

But sorting is just the beginning of the complicated process, she observed.

After the outer ballot envelopes are sorted, a group of 56 people known as a mixed-party affiliation board begins the job of hand-counting and inspecting individual ballots. They break into groups of four — two Democrats and two Republicans — to move the ballots along.

"They separate the outer envelope from the secrecy envelope, and then the ballot from the secrecy envelope," she said. "This is a bipartisan effort and they do a fantastic job. They help ensure the integrity of the election."

The ballots are kept in a vault for safekeeping until they are run through one of the county's four vote tabulators.

Observers from each party are permitted to watch all phases of the election, Walker said.

In the 2008 general election, Walker worked until 5 a.m. hand-sorting ballots, went home and got a couple of hours sleep, then returned to work.

"We continue it until it is done," she said. "With this sorter, it will be a faster process."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.