When the election is over there will be “thousands and thousands of reams of paper” from ballots and envelopes voters have turned in from Sacramento County alone, according to Janna Haynes, a public information officer for Sacramento County Elections.
And when she says reams, she means it. The county sent out nearly 890,000 ballots last month. Each ballot is about the size of two 8x10 pieces of paper.
“The response has been overwhelming,” she said. “Having almost half of our possible ballots already back in the office is really encouraging.”
With so much potential paper waste from the election process, what happens to all the ballots and the envelopes they come in?
Two elections code sections reference ballots either needing to be destroyed or recycled 22 months after a federal election takes place, according to Sam Mahood, press secretary for the California Secretary of State.
The rule is in place in case the election is challenged or a recount is needed, said Haynes with Sacramento County. After that time limit passes — nearly two years — the county calls in a shredding company to cut the ballots, envelopes and other documents with sensitive information on them into ribbons or little squares.
“It’s not just an environmental, conscientious decision, but it's obviously a privacy issue as well,” she said of envelopes with private information on them.
While the ballots wait almost two years for shredding, Sacramento County locks them behind a chain link fence in a “very large warehouse,” where they are sorted by precinct, Haynes said.
A company then recycles the ballots as well as documents that don’t have sensitive information on them. Other counties such as Placer and El Dorado have a similar process.
Since all active registered voters in California received a mail-in ballot this year, Haynes says, “If you don't vote with the one that's being sent, you have to recycle it yourself.”
As of Nov. 2, Yolo County had received 56% of its early return ballots, but the county doesn’t recycle them. The ballots are destroyed, but Registrar of Voters Jesse Salinas wouldn’t divulge how they are done away with after being stored for 22 months.
“We want to make sure that there's not anybody feeling like there's other ballots that somehow appear,” he said. “We want to make it permanent, [because] there's a lot of theories out there that ballots are not being destroyed properly.”
In Orange County, 4 million pages of voter information — a three-page ballot and envelopes — will fill half of a 90,000 square foot warehouse, says Neal Kelley, registrar of voters for the county.
“If somebody came back 20 months later and said, ‘Hey, we need to see a ballot that was cast in whatever precinct’ … we can prepare that easily,” he said.
Kelley says the voting process could become more environmentally conscious if voter information pamphlets, which are around 50 pages each, were mainly offered online. This could be decided by the county or state with an opt-in for a pamphlet. He says about 100,000 of the around 1.7 millions voters in the county already opt out of paper voter guides.
“It's like your bank statements,” he said. “A lot of people have moved off of that and they get it online. We should do the same thing with our voter guide.”
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