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Three recent Durango High School graduates observe election process from the inside

‘With everything that happened in 2020, I wanted to just see the process for myself,’ says Tommy Pope, age 18
Dustin Hayden, left, and Sam Johnson process ballots at the La Plata County Clerk and Recorder’s Office during Tuesday’s primary. Johnson is one of three Durango High School graduates to work as an election judge during La Plata County’s 2022 primaries. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

On Tuesday, 41 election judges counted, recounted, divided and verified ballots in the La Plata County Clerk and Recorder’s Office in Bodo Park during the county’s 2022 general primaries.

The election room was a hub of activity. Slow for an election, said La Plata County Clerk and Recorder Tiffany Lee, but the judges made quick work of the ballots streaming into the office.

Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated judges partnered in teams, working together smoothly in a sight few would expect in today’s partisan political landscape.

But one thing was noticeably absent: youth.

That is with the exception of Sam Johnson, 19, and Tommy Pope, 18, two former Durango High School students who enlisted as election judges for the 2022 primaries to learn more about the democratic process. In doing so, they gained an appreciation for the integrity and the work that goes into local elections.

Johnson and Pope serve as models in Lee’s efforts to strengthen the engagement of young people in La Plata County’s elections.

Three recent DHS graduates – Johnson, Pope and Jake Genualdi – participated as election judges in this year’s primaries, some of the few younger than 50.

Tommy Pope, an election judge, assists voters before they cast their ballots on Tuesday at the La Plata County Clerk and Recorder’s Office in Bodo Park. Pope, who will attend the University of Texas at Austin this fall, decided to serve as an election judge to participate in the election process and learn more about civics. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Johnson, who recently finished his first year at Brigham Young University and is transferring to the University of Colorado at Boulder in the fall, was looking for a job that would help him to learn more about the world, and after 2020’s tumultuous election, becoming an election judge seemed like a natural fit.

“We have a big poster (at the La Plata County Clerk and Recorder’s Office). It says, ‘If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.’ I even felt like I needed to take it one step further. I can’t really complain until I see and am involved in the process,” Johnson said. “I was really lucky to get that opportunity.”

Pope has served on Durango’s Mayor’s Youth Advisory Commission and helped to restart the speech and debate team at DHS.

Like Johnson, Pope, who will attend the University of Texas at Austin this fall, wanted to participate in elections and learn more about civics.

“I’ve always tried to get (involved in) that political side of things. I knew the primaries were coming up and I wanted to be an election judge and see if I could have that opportunity,” he said. “With everything that happened in 2020, I wanted to just see the process for myself and I could not have been happier with my decision.”

For Johnson and Pope, serving as election judges has been eye-opening.

Johnson started in May hand-making ballots for those who had switched their addresses or were in the military or overseas. Since drop boxes opened in early June, Johnson has been on teams picking up mail ballots from Bayfield, Ignacio and the La Plata County Fairgrounds, helping to process them through the Clerk and Recorder’s system which takes a photograph of the signature of each ballot so they can be verified by bipartisan teams.

Going into the election, Johnson expected the processing of ballots to be more mechanical and driven by technology.

Election judges process ballots Tuesday during La Plata County’s 2022 primaries in the La Plata County Clerk and Recorder’s Office. Only a handful of young people serve as election judges each cycle, said La Plata County Clerk and Recorder Tiffany Lee. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

“Each ballot gets touched by hand multiple times. When you think about how big the county is, you assume that’s not how it is,” he said. “I was really impressed to see each ballot is verified by two people (from different parties) and two separate people for the signature.

“That was my biggest surprise in the whole thing – how much people still are in the process,” he said.

Pope spent much of his time working at the polling center at the La Plata County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, checking in and registering voters and confirming IDs. But he also went with a team of election judges to Four Corners Health Care Center in Durango to assist senior residents with voting.

“I was with someone of the opposite party and we were just strictly reading the ballot for them,” Pope said. “We can’t tell them anything about the candidates (or) any information. We just read the ballot and then they say, ‘I want to vote for this person,’ and we’re both there with our eyes on the paper (from) opposite parties filling it in.

“That was a really cool experience because it was people who have been looking forward to voting for months,” he said.

Serving as election judges in La Plata County’s primaries has lent Pope and Johnson lessons on the roles of government officials and partisanship in today’s charged politics.

“Something that I’ve learned is there’s a lot that goes into government that’s not necessarily politics,” Pope said. “(La Plata County Clerk and Recorder) Tiffany Lee is elected and our county treasurer is also elected, and they’re more administrative positions. Their roles are forgotten, but they’re still extremely important.

“People are polarized by representatives and senators and highly contested elections, but it is offices like (county clerk and recorder and treasurer) which help keep our country running,” he said.

As Johnson has worked with Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated judges to pick up and process ballots, he has seen the cooperation and civility that is often lacking in national politics and on cable news.

“It’s been really relieving to see all these people here, different parties working together with the same goal,” he said. “No one’s trying to overthrow anything, no one’s trying to miscount anything. Everybody’s here (with) the goal of having a safe and accurate election.”

La Plata County Clerk and Recorder Tiffany Lee speaks in April 2022 about the election process. Lee’s goal is to increase the number of young people involved in La Plata County’s elections. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Young people like Johnson and Pope are who Lee hopes to see more of.

The two are not the first students Lee has had serve as election judges, but each election cycle students are only a handful of the dozens of people who volunteer to work as election judges.

Lee has coordinated with Dale Garland, who recently retired, to get permission and releases for students at DHS to work with the county on Election Day.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, she would help to run the DHS Student Council elections, taking students through the petition process and allowing the high school to use the county’s ballot marking machines so that students could have the full experience.

“I still have people come in now saying, ‘You started me voting when I was 16 at the high school,’ and they’re voting now,” Lee said. “It’s an exciting opportunity for them and it starts to trigger with them that I can make a difference and this is easy and important.”

Beyond engaging the next generation of voters, Lee has another motivation: The 18 to 35 age group has the lowest turnout in La Plata County each election cycle.

Though the primaries have passed, Johnson, Pope and Genualdi continue to work with Lee as La Plata County goes through the state’s mandatory audit and turns to the canvass and petition processes ahead of the November general elections.

“It’s the first time I’ve had youth that wanted to do this, which is so exciting to me,” Lee said.

As Lee looks to engage more young people in local elections, Pope said his experience as an election judge has been a meaningful one.

“It’s important for young people to get involved because at the end of the day it’s our future,” he said. “I look at these people who are our leaders who are 70 (and) 80 years old and they’re making policies that they’re not even going to see come to fruition. When young people get involved, they really can advocate or what they want in their future.”


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