This week I learned how a secure election works by serving as an election judge.
Most ballots – more than 98% – arrived by mail or in drop boxes, but voters could vote in person at Voter Service and Polling Centers in Bayfield, at the fairgrounds or at the clerk and recorder’s office.
Mail ballot tracking has five stages, each overseen by pairs of election judges of differing affiliation. Every step requires a verified ballot count – in batches no larger than 50 – virtually eliminating the chance of miscounting in the final tally.
The first step assembles ballots into batches, which come from 12 sources: clerk’s mailbox; 24-hour drop boxes in six county locations; the VSPCs; military service men and women; and health care facilities, where residents might need assistance.
In the crucial second stage, software images the mail ballot envelope, date stamps it and captures the voter information prior to opening. Election judges then compare the signature on each envelope with every other in the voter’s registration and voting history, using software certified by the secretary of state. (The secretary of state uses multiple sources to ensure the integrity of these data, particularly eliminating deceased voters and those registered in other states). Additional judges review possible discrepancies or confirm a missing signature. Unless two sets of judges agree on the voter’s valid identification, the clerk’s office notifies the voter, who has eight days after the election to “cure” the ballot. After removal of questioned envelopes, the judges record the number remaining in the batch.
In stage three, a machine slits the envelopes for easy ballot removal and judges count again. Only then, in step four, do other judges remove the ballots – carefully keeping the envelopes face-down to preserve voter anonymity. (I worked in this role. Eight of us, plus two who performed step five, occupied a single room.) These judges examine each ballot for any issue, such as a tear, that might jam the ballot scanner or cause a miscount. Most ballots, by far, pass this screening. Others go to another two judges who visually assess the voter’s intent and duplicate the ballot for scanning, documenting the linkage between the original (separately saved) and the duplicate (tallied) ballot. Envelopes, separated from the ballots they could link to voters, remain in counted batches to validate the tracking process, if necessary.
In the final step, after counting each batch, judges combine batches into groups of 50, eliminating the last chance of associating any ballot with a specific voter. Only then do these judges feed the resulting ballot groups into the scanner to count and tally votes. (The tabulation system has no internet connection, obviating concern about hacking. The software itself has undergone multiple accuracy tests.)
Colorado requires a paper ballot for every vote. In-person voters at VSPCs may choose paper ballots or can use electronic ballot-marking devices that create hard copies without storing votes. All tabulation occurs at the clerk’s office with VSPC ballots arriving at step five, with analogous tracking documentation.
Unsung heroes and heroines abound in this story, including secretaries of state of both parties who devised and perfected the mail-in voting system; the current secretary of state and the 64 county clerks who administer it (including our own Tiffany Lee and her staff, who demonstrated consistent professionalism); and the many citizen volunteers (41 here this week) who work painstakingly to ensure integrity in the process.
Remarkably in this time of political polarization and alleged election irregularities, the staff and multi-affiliated volunteers formed a congenial team working to conduct our public election efficiently with unimpeachable integrity. At the end of three days together, casual conversation about our lives had established familiarity and good humor.
Dick White is a former two-term City Council member and served as mayor of Durango.