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La Plata County clerk defends local elections process

Tiffany Lee describes how ballots are handled securely amid 2020 election concerns
Ashli Stuckman with the La Plata County Clerk and Recorder’s Office empties a full ballot drop box during the November 2016 election. (Durango Herald file)

Unsubstantiated rumors and conspiracy theories about widespread election fraud that questioned the legitimacy of the results of the 2020 presidential election, plus a security breach in Mesa County in May, have some voters concerned about the security of elections here in La Plata County and across the state of Colorado.

The rumors prompted Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce, to invite La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Lee to speak at the chamber’s Eggs & Issues meeting Tuesday morning about the security of local and state elections.

Lee assured attendees during her presentation that her office takes election security seriously. She reviewed the processes election staff members follow to collect an accurate ballot count each election and invited those interested to tour her office come election time to see how ballots are handled.

Lee was quick to address a security breach that occurred in Mesa County in May that involved Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters and members of her staff. Although Lee would not speak about the details of the issue, aside from saying Mesa County staff passwords were released on social media, she described the situation as “unfortunate” and stressed the incident did not and could not affect La Plata County elections.

“Last month in August there was some pretty hard press that came out regarding Mesa County and some actions that occurred from the county clerk’s office relating to elections security and integrity,” Lee said. “And of course, we’ve been hearing about that since 2020, right? All of the scrutiny of elections. Are we really secure? Is there all this corruption?”

Not in La Plata County, said Lee, who has served as the county clerk since 2010 and who has operated in the same line of work for 25 years, she said Tuesday.

La Plata County Clerk and Recorder Tiffany Lee discusses election security at the Eggs & Issues meeting Tuesday morning, hosted by Durango Chamber of Commerce. (Christian Burney/Durango Herald)

Lee described a process she called a “trusted build,” which is a secure way of enhancing election equipment, including software and hardware, and involves three separate parties working together: the county clerk, the ballot vendor, which is the company Dominion in La Plata County and 61 other Colorado counties, and the Secretary of State’s Office. Passwords are needed to enhance election equipment, Lee said, and in the case of Mesa County, those passwords were leaked online, which compromised the equipment.

But those passwords wouldn’t work on La Plata County election equipment, and the hardware and software in each county is not connected to wireless internet and is not networked, meaning there is no way, for example, that a hacker can access election data or machinery from online. The election equipment is also not hooked up to the county network at all, Lee said.

La Plata County had its elections equipment enhanced in August, Lee said, and so far, no hiccups have been announced.

Lee and her elections administrator oversee the La Plata County elections themselves. For in-person voting, a voter would use a tablet that is not connected to the internet to mark his or her ballot; that ballot is then printed for auditing.

“In Colorado we have to have a paper ballot on every single vote,” Lee said. “We don’t do it electronically.”

Before an election, the clerk and elections administrator perform what Lee called a logic and accuracy test. This year, that test is scheduled for Sept. 28 ahead of the November election. Lee said candidates running for public office are welcome to attend and observe the test in person as it is a public process.

“We do our own internal testing. We also have a representative from each political party that come in and vote 25 ballots of their own,” Lee said. “They hand count them; they actually cast those votes through the equipment and then we run the results to ensure that the votes are accurate. And a majority of the time their hand count is wrong.”

During a live election, cameras are pointed at all of the election equipment at all times. Rooms containing certain equipment are password protected and only certain people are allowed access. After the election, Lee said the county then performs a “risk-limited audit,” a process that so far Colorado is the only state to have adopted, which it did in 2017.

“There are some brilliant people that are way past my knowledge that created this audit, and it’s basically taking a sample of the ballots and ensuring that the cast vote record matches exactly how it was tabulated,” Lee said.

Eggs & Issues attendees listen to La Plata Clerk and Recorder Tiffany Lee describe mail-in voter versus in-person voter statistics for the county. (Christian Burney/Durango Herald)

Three days after Election Day, every county sends its records of cast votes to the Secretary of State’s Office, which randomly draws up votes of certain races and cross-checks them with the counties they were pulled from. The Secretary of State’s Office tends to cross-reference its records with county records for tight races, Lee said.

“They may pull that specific ballot and can ensure that exactly how the machine read it, and it’s visually looked at, to say yep, this is how the person cast a vote,” Lee said. “All 64 counties have to do it. We do it on the same day at the same time. If any of us fail, then we go into a round two. And I’ll report that since 2017 in La Plata County, we have never failed our first round. We’ve always been accurate.”

Every part of the election process is handled with bipartisan teams, Lee said. The clerk’s office hires election judges who are paid to handle every process from the time ballots are received to signature verification, to vote tabulation and ballot auditing.

“They are your friends, colleagues, neighbors, whatever,” Lee said. “But they have to do everything bipartisan. Nothing can be done independently. That’s another important piece to keep everything in check. Republican and Democrat; I can use unaffiliated, Libertarian, Green. There are specific duties that I can only use a Republican and Democrat to get. If they have a disagreement then another team will come in and look through it. That’s another piece of the security.”

cburney@durangoherald.com

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