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Top election official in La Plata County explains what happens to ballots after they are dropped off

Several layers of judges oversee process, from transporting ballots to verifying signatures
Election judges Lisa Self, left, and Donna Burr look over ballots Thursday that have been received at the La Plata County Clerk and Recorder’s Office. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Election security is on the minds of many American voters these days.The 2020 General Election was plagued with unsubstantiated accusations of voter or election fraud. Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters is under investigation for releasing passwords to voting equipment over social media.

But elections in La Plata County have a 100% track record in post-election audits, said Clerk and Recorder Tiffany Lee. The audit that Colorado elections undergo is called a “risk-limited audit,” Lee said, and the process involves the county’s cast vote record being sent to the Secretary of State’s Office.

“Every batch, every ballot, is identified on a huge spreadsheet that’s all electronic, coming out of our Dominion software,” Lee said.

The software itself is separate from the county’s network and does not possess wireless capabilities, making it inaccessible to outside parties, hackers and others who shouldn’t be able to access the software.

“It (the software) has the cast-vote record, so it’s saying this is a particular ballot and this is how it was voted,” Lee said. “The state does a random drawing. ... They’ll randomly say ‘I want you to take this container, these ballots, and do a manual audit of them.’”

Election judges look over ballots Thursday at the La Plata County Clerk and Recorder’s Office. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

A manual audit involves both major parties, so the Republican and Democratic parties. A canvas board appointed by both major parties manually pulls a set of ballots as directed by the Secretary of State’s Office and revotes those ballots into a separate set of software which the secretary of state uses.

“The secretary of state knows what the ballot results are supposed to look like. So they (the canvassers) cast it and it has to match perfectly,” Lee said.

All 64 Colorado counties perform the risk-limited audit simultaneously, Lee said. If an initial audit doesn’t pass – meaning there is a discrepancy between the canvassed ballots and the secretary of state’s cast-vote record, a second audit is performed.

“If a county has a discrepancy, it’s usually because an election judge pulled the wrong ballot or they entered the ballot incorrectly, or the voter intent was done (interpreted) differently between the machine and what the election judge said at the audit,” Lee said.

Lee said she believes the risk-limited audit is the best election audit method available in the United States. She said other states are also looking into how to implement this audit method for themselves in future elections.

Ballot processing a bipartisan effort
Ballots make their way through a careful and well-documented counting process Thursday at the La Plata County Clerk and Recorder’s Office. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Everything involving the handling of ballots is done in a bipartisan manner, Lee said. A Republican may be paired with a Democrat, or a Democrat may be paired with an independent, or any combination there, but the ballots are always handled with bipartisan care.

“When we do ballot transport, it’s through bipartisan teams,” Lee said. “Everything that they do, they have to do with opposite parties.”

The first stop for ballots that are mailed in or transported from an official county drop box is the batching room. A “batch” refers to a collection of ballots collected at one time.

The ballot envelopes are fed into a machine that photographs them, date-stamps them and reads a bar code on the envelopes to capture the voters’ information. The photograph is cropped to display the voter verification signature that election judges compare with that voter’s registration record to confirm the signature is valid.

The La Plata County Clerk and Recorder’s Office worked with Runbeck Elections Services to develop the batching machine, Lee said. Runbeck is on its third prototype and makes small models for offices the size of La Plata County’s as well as bigger machines for counties with larger voter bases. The machines are also more accurate than people who always come with the chance of human error.

“They’re getting sold all over the United States, and it’s been really cool to be part of that technology,” Lee said. “It’s really helped us with eliminating a lot of manual work that was taking us a lot of time.”

The model La Plata County uses costs about $40,000, but La Plata County received its machine for a discounted price because it assisted in the development by providing feedback about end-user functionality.

An election judge must be able to find three matching signatures across a voter’s registration record in order for the ballot to be considered valid. Every time an election judge finds a signature discrepancy, they must consult with the opposing party’s election judge in the batching room.

La Plata County Clerk and Recorder Tiffany Lee explains the signature verification process as election judges Tonya McKnight, left, and Jill Patton view signed ballots Thursday at the La Plata County Clerk and Recorder’s Office. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

If both judges agree the signatures don’t match, the ballot isn’t counted at that time – but there is still time for the voter who submitted it to authenticate the ballot. That occurs in what’s called a cure process, Lee said, which takes place for eight days after an election.

Voters must confirm they submitted a rejected ballot and provide a form of ID to have that ballot “cured” and counted. Ballot envelopes missing a signature are also followed up on through the cure process.

Voters are contacted through a mailed affidavit for the cure process. The affidavit asks if a voter voted with the ballot in question or not. If a voter doesn’t respond, then Lee submits a case to the district attorney to follow up with.

The district attorney will communicate to the voter through mail and if that voter still doesn’t respond, the DA will visit the voter’s residence on record to inquire about what’s going on with the ballot in question.

La Plata County Clerk and Recorder Tiffany Lee, left, looks on as adjudication and duplication election judges Marian Hamlin and Susan Voorhees look over ballots Thursday at the clerk’s office. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

If election judges can’t agree that a ballot signature matches what is on record then that ballot is automatically rejected.

“Republican and Democrat have to determine that,” Lee said. “I cannot determine this. They (bipartisan election judges) have to.”

Lee said only 36 out of 7,000 ballots had been rejected as of Wednesday, just six days before the election on Nov. 2. The rate of rejections is not high, Lee said.

“You’ll see more in a general election, obviously, as the turnout is higher, but it’s still a very, very small percentage.”

The ballots are kept face-down so that individual voters’ decisions aren’t known to the election judges.

A thank you poster to the election judges from the Boys & Girls Club of La Plata hangs on the wall Thursday at the La Plata County Clerk and Recorder’s Office. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Envelopes containing more than one ballot result in all of those ballots being rejected, Lee said, because each and every ballot must be accompanied by a voter signature on the envelope it was delivered in.

The ballot counting judge reconfirms the number of ballots in a batch before feeding them into the tabulating machine.

After ballots are opened by the envelope opening judges, the ballots are recounted and then tabulated in batches of 50. Everything from that process and onward is done in batches of 50 to keep everything organized and to make the audit process simpler, Lee said.

The vote tabulating machine resembles a large printer/scanner. It scans each image, tallies the votes and adds the date, time and machine number, and batch and ballot number to each ballot.

“Everything’s under camera,” Lee said. “I’ve got secure scramble pads for each door and only specific people can get into each one.”

Lee said that at night, every room in the elections unit is locked and sealed with scramble pad lock mechanisms.

“This keypad (scramble pad) scrambles the numbers every time,” Lee said. “And then we each have our own unique codes. I can track and run reports so I can see who is accessing (the rooms).”

Lee is so confident in La Plata County’s election security that she invited members of the public in September to tour the Clerk and Recorder’s Office and watch the ballot counting process unfold as it happens. Only one visitor has taken her up on the invite so far, Lee said, but he left the feeling reassured that his vote would be safe and counted fairly with La Plata County.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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