Cars queue up to drop off mail-in ballots at the Registrar of Voters office in Kearny Mesa. Photo by Chris Stone

San Diego County election officials are bending over backward to ensure your vote counts. How far? If you use the wrong colored pen, they’ll refill in the ovals with a proper ink.

If the ballot is damaged — and can’t be fed into scanning machines — they will copy your choices onto a new ballot.

Citizens were still registering to vote at the Registrar of Voters office Monday, the last day for the Nov. 3 election, with in-person voting available until 8 p.m. For another four hours, people can register online at

As drivers dropped off their ballots, employees double-checked that all envelopes contained signatures and were dated. So far, said an employee, people have been good about remembering to sign. But they could sign on the spot if necessary.

Detailed guidelines show the extent to which county staff goes to count ballots despite voter errors.

And you might be surprised how many second chances you get if you mess up.

So what happens to your ballot once it gets to the Registrar of Voters office in Kearny Mesa?

In the first step, stacks of mail-in ballots are scanned for voter signatures. Photo by Chris Stone

First, completed mail ballot envelopes are sorted into batches of 100-200 in the order received. Sorting machines scan voter signatures on the outside of the envelope.

At this point, envelopes may be held back — if voters have changed their personal information, they used the wrong envelope (your spouse’s instead of your own, for example) or don’t have a signature.

If there is a clear match between the signature on the envelope and the one on record from voter registration or the Department of Motor Vehicles, the ballot is sent through to the next step.

If there isn’t a clear match, they are checked by humans.

Here is where you get your initial second chance.

In that process, staffers check scanned signatures on computer screens for matching characteristics in the signatures, such as the slant, loops in letters like “g” and “j” and dotting “i” and crossed “t.” Two matching characteristics give your ballot a thumbs up.

Registrar of Voters staff check signatures against computer records if uncertainties exist. Photo by Chris Stone

If discrepancies exist — such as signatures that clearly don’t match, a name that’s printed instead of signed, the wrong person signed the envelope or the signature is undecipherable — it moves to the reconciliation staff.

Here’s your next second chance.

If a discrepancy is not cleared up by the reconciliation staff — who have access to past voting records — a letter is sent to the voter. This gives voters a chance to correct the problem (sign the envelope, sign rather than write a name, etc.) before voting is certified after the election.

The voter has until two days before the Registrar of Voters certifies the election to “cure” their nonsigned envelope, by providing a signed affidavit for to them to compare against.

Ballots aren’t merely tossed.

Mail ballot envelopes then go through a sorting machine a second time.

Ballots that have verified signatures are opened and checked for problems, such as overvoting or extra markings. Photo by Chris Stone

Ever since Oct. 5, employees have been allowed to open envelopes and remove mail ballots.

Employees review both sides to look for problems that may interfere with scanning, such as torn or damaged ballots, staples or paper clips, ballots marked with the wrong color ink (black and blue are suggested), or envelopes that contain extraneous materials, such as a sample ballot.

Here is another second chance.

Torn and damaged ballots may be remade if the ballot is not readable. Staffer pairs, working under direction of a supervisor, verify the new ballot.

Both workers recheck the work, initial the original ballot and log in the process.

Ballots filled in with the wrong color ink may be “enhanced,” with a designated highlighter pen, so that the ballot is readable.

Lastly, stacks of ballots are loaded into ballot tabulating machines. Photo by Chris Stone

At this point, most ballots can be scanned for results. Digital images are made of each paper ballot.

Some ballots may require additional attention, though. You got it. Another second chance.

Ballots with stray markings, overvoting (voting for more than the specified number of candidates in a race) and write-ins must go through the adjudication process.

This is where voter intent may have to be determined (reminiscent of examining hanging chads in the 2000 Florida presidential recount.)

In some cases, voters have tried to correct voting errors by crossing out one name and voting for another candidate for the same office or have written a note of explanation.

Ambiguous marks, instead of the filled-in oval, also are adjudicated for voter intent.

Write-ins of names not on the list of qualified candidates are rejected. So don’t bother to vote for Mickey Mouse.

After all of these chances, your ballot is scanned to be counted.

More than 1.9 million people have registered to vote as of Monday.

The number of rejected ballots is generally less than 1%, according to county Registrar of Voters Michael Vu.

The No. 1 reason for mail ballot rejection is because it’s late, he said. No second chances here.

“For this election, the Legislature extended the window (of accepting ballots),” he said, “so long as the ballot is postmarked by Election Day.” And received by Nov. 20 for it to be considered timely.

(Ballots need to be returned promptly — mailed no later than Oct. 27 — to ensure they’re postmarked on or before Nov. 3 and delivered by Nov. 6.)

The second reason for mail ballot rejection is a signature not comparing to one on record.  Voters are advised to study their driver’s license or identification cards before signing.

So ballots don’t have to be perfect and signatures don’t have to be exact, but if you think you messed up, expect a letter from the Registrar of Voters and get your response back promptly.

In-person early voting has begun at the San Diego County Registrar of Voters Office in Kearny Mesa. Photo by Chris Stone