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Rhode Island Board of Elections Automates Ballot Mail Processing

The State of Rhode Island Board of Elections (RI-BOE), like many other jurisdictions around the country, faced monumental challenges to processing elections during a pandemic.

RI BOE

The State of Rhode Island Board of Elections (RI-BOE), like many other jurisdictions around the country, faced monumental challenges to processing elections during a pandemic.

When the pandemic escalated in the Spring, the state opted to delay the presidential preference primary from April 27 to June 2 to allow time to develop a plan to handle the expected increase in mail-in ballots. The RI-BOE had experience processing 16,000 mail-in ballots, but the rescheduled presidential preference pri- mary saw a greater than six-fold increase in ballot mail volume to 107,000 pieces.

The RI-BOE adeptly employed existing tools to handle the higher volume of ballot envelopes, with organization strategies including hand sorting and paper-based signature adjudication, but it remained an involved, labor-intensive process.

Miguel Nunez, Deputy Director of Elections at the RI-BOE, recalls scanning and organizing absentee voter applications just so elections staff could efficiently compare the envelope signature on the application to what was returned on the ballot.

“Obviously this was very manually labor intensive with processing all those applications, sorting and alphabetizing them to make it all even possible,” said Nunez. “It was clear future elections with expanded mail-in voting would require an automated solution. As soon as that election was over on June 2nd, we knew the storm that was coming for the general election.”

The RI-BOE reached out to vendors and visited jurisdictions with established vote-by-mail operations before acquiring a Fluence Automation sorting solution that included a Criterion Elevate sorter with an inline, selective opener and 32 bins.

Nunez notes three criteria the Fluence solution met, all revolving around flexibility and expandability. “Number one, we could add another bin section, so that definitely piqued our interest. Number two, we could add the automatic signature verification software. The third element was the ability to add laser tab removal, where the top layer of paper covering a voter’s signature is removed inline via a laser as the mailpiece passes through the machine,” he said.

Additionally, an interface was put in place to efficiently facilitate the automated data exchange between the RI-BOE’s EMS and their Fluence system. The RI-BOE also considered the floor space required to install new equipment. ”
The machine fit perfectly in the footprint we laid out for it,” he said.

Another consideration for the RI-BOE was support. “We put that on our high-priority list,” Nunez notes, “so we could get support, if needed, rather quickly.”

Fluence’s central U.S. base of operations and nationwide network of local technicians provided a good fit. “Obviously Fluence does have non-elections customers,” Nunez said, “so technicians are available in a pinch that could service the equipment.”

The Fluence system was installed in July 2020 and was quickly put into operation for both the early September statewide primary and subsequent November general election, which saw 170,000 ballot envelopes processed. COVID-19 restrictions meant fewer elections workers could process ballot mail while maintaining safe social distancing.

An executive order allowing for digital signature adjudication put the Fluence system to full use, where an otherwise manual paper-based signature comparison would have required more time and labor to process ballot envelopes.

Nunez found that with the Fluence system they were able to process nearly 1,500 signatures per hour with a single pair of elections officials. With their previous setup, it would have taken a full day to process that amount.
“So basically,” he explains, “you’re looking at seven hours versus only one hour [with the Fluence vote-by-mail system].”

The selective opener was helpful to the RI-BOE, making possible the ability to automatically open good, adjudicated ballot mail, while skipping mail that requires further processing before extraction.

“Before, we had to separate them, and we don’t have to do that now,” Nunez said. “The machine is capable of separating and opening the good ballots from the ballots that don’t make it through adjudication and require further action by the voter.”

Mail ballot volume is increasing for many large and small counties, and Fluence offers sorting solutions to handle all volumes of ballot mail.

Nunez notes while the Elevate sorter was a great fit for the RI-BOE, any jurisdiction would benefit from sorting automation. The new Fluence Automation Summit sorter geared toward counties with smaller volumes of registered voters would be a good step to take in automating the process.
“It definitely would represent an opportunity to make their operations just as efficient as we did with ours,” Nunez said.

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