Colorado election officials tout safety of voting by mail

DENVER (AP) – One hand watches the other.

Bipartisan teams transport, verify, open, sort, count and store Colorado’s ballots – all in secure rooms with windows through which anyone can watch.

Election judges and computers check each vote and signature against state registries before they’re tabulated and stashed by the hundreds in cardboard boxes, numbered and dated.

No single person or party controls any portion of the process. Checks, balances and redundancies guard against fraud, interference and innocuous errors.

Colorado’s mail-in voting system is as safe as it gets, local and national experts, election judges, Republicans and Democrats agree – despite efforts by President Donald Trump and others to question the security of voting by mail.

Colorado is one of just five states employing an automatic vote-by-mail election system and many now wonder how the remaining 45 and the District of Columbia will handle the November election as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

More and more eyes are turning to Denver to see how it’s done.

– The ballots

Alton Dillard nodded with apparent satisfaction as he watched a man lug a red metal lock box into a secure room inside the Denver Clerk and Recorder’s Office downtown during the June 30 primary.

It’s the kind of event for which Dillard, the office’s communications manager, wears a suit. He has watched all sorts of elections roll by since 2005 and takes pride in understanding the nuances.

Each of the state’s 64 county clerks run elections according to guidelines set out by Secretary of State Jena Griswold and state law. There are minor differences among counties, but by and large the system is the same statewide.

There are thousands of different ballots for each election because school, municipal, statehouse and other political districts overlap each other in many different combinations. Each county has different measures and candidates but also different types of paper, different colors, thicknesses and more, Griswold said.

The various details would be nearly impossible to imitate should a bad actor want to sway an election using false ballots, the elected Democrat said.

Denver’s ballots are printed in Washington State, Dillard said, and trucked to Colorado in locked semis with tracking pucks.

“That’s how they know the ballots didn’t go across the Bering Strait and into Russia,” Dillard said.

County clerks and bipartisan teams will often arrive at their post offices to watch as the trucks are unlocked and the ballots are dumped into the mail stream to be delivered to registered voters across the state.

– Who can vote, and how

One of the most important security features of Colorado’s election system is the voter registry and its diligent upkeep, said former Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a Republican who led the launch of Colorado’s mail-in voting system in 2013.

The Secretary of State’s Office checks with the post office, Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment and Department of Corrections monthly, Griswold said, to ensure that if anybody moves out of state, dies or is imprisoned, they’ll be removed from the registry and will no longer receive a ballot.

The frequency of the checks increases before an election, said Steve Hurlbert, a spokesperson for Griswold.

Eligible voters receive their ballots about three weeks before a given election. They can cast their votes and return the ballots by mail up to eight days before Election Day or they can submit them into a drop box or clerk’s office until 7 p.m. on Election Night.

Bipartisan teams collect votes from Denver’s 37 drop boxes daily, locking the boxes containing the ballots and labeling them by location before delivering them downtown. On Election Night, the teams repeat the procedure, closing the drop boxes precisely when polls close.

Often voters drop their ballots in the wrong county, but Dillard said even that is manageable: “We do have a process to swap out with other county clerks, and they get counted.”

Between 3% and 4% of Coloradans still prefer to vote in person, which they can do at their county clerk’s office and other designated voting locations, Hurlbert said.

– Checking signatures

Whether ballots are received early or on Election Night, they go through the same process, beginning with ensuring that each ballot was submitted by the voter to whom it was mailed.

Incoming ballots are fed through a machine that checks the signature on the envelope against each voter’s on-file signature. Those signatures are collected as people register to vote, when receiving or renewing their driver’s licenses, when they voted in previous elections and more, said Jocelyn Bucaro, Denver’s director of elections.

“We have many, many, many different signatures from you as a voter to compare your signature against,” Bucaro said.

The machine kicks out envelopes if the signatures aren’t close enough to those on file. Then a bipartisan team of judges – specially trained for the task – steps up to examine the signatures further. Those teams can either accept the signatures and approve the ballots to be counted or set aside mismatches.

The clerk’s office contacts voters whose signatures were not accepted – or who forgot to sign their ballots – and gives them eight days to resolve, or “cure,” the discrepancy.

Of the 211,626 ballots cast by mail or drop box in the June 30 primary, only 3,862 – or 1.8% – were rejected because of a mismatch or lack of signature.

Ballots with mismatched signatures that aren’t cured by voters are turned over to district attorneys to investigate further, just in case, Bucaro said. But nearly all discrepancies come from simple issues, she said. Sometimes people print their names rather than sign, sometimes one spouse accidentally signs the other’s envelope, and the signature of aging voters can deteriorate over time.

Envelopes bearing signatures that do match – the vast majority – are sent into a different room where bipartisan teams of election judges open the envelopes and remove the ballots inside.

Each voter’s name and address is separated from their vote and will “never meet again during any part of the process,” Dillard said.

The envelopes go into storage, where they will remain for more than two years.

– Counting and tabulating

Moving down the line of election judges, the ballots are imprinted with a unique and random 10-digit number and fed through another machine that tabulates the votes.

Until polls close, they can be counted but not tabulated, Dillard said. This means judges enter the votes into the counting machine, but the results aren’t applied to any given race.

“We don’t know who’s leading, who’s behind, which election is doing what until we hit that button at 7 p.m. on Election Night,” he said.

As the ballots are being fed, sometimes they are too garbled or mangled for the computer to read the votes, so it sends an image to bipartisan teams of adjudicating judges to review.

Those judges shuffle around the room in red vests with a party affiliation pin on their chest. Though there are even numbers of Republicans and Democrats, the atmosphere bears no resemblance to the current national political climate. The judges smile and joke while also taking their job seriously.

“We’re making every vote count,” said Democratic Judge MaryAnne Thompson, who said she began judging elections around 2005.

Another judge, unaffiliated 19-year-old Ulysses Atkeson, said he began work as a judge before he was old enough to vote and now he’s hooked.

“The people are great, and the elections never stop,” Atkeson said with a laugh.

Regardless of party, the Denver election judges and employees The Denver Post spoke with June 30 shook their heads when asked about the doubts cast on election security at the national level.

“That tells me these people don’t know or understand what the process is,” said Steve Sharp, a full-time employee of the clerk’s office. “I say come down here and watch us and try to find a flaw.”

Sharp smiled as he looked toward the long table filled with computers for adjudicating judges.

Sometimes the judges will notice that a person consistently used an X to mark their preferred candidate rather than filling in circles as directed. Or perhaps the circle for one choice is only 80% filled while that for another candidate has what’s called in the business a “hesitation mark.”

As long as the judges can clearly see how a person intended to vote, they can tabulate the results accordingly, Dillard said.

The judges work through ballots in batches of about 800, and Thompson estimated between 5% to 10% have to be adjudicated.

The clerk’s office updates election results online every 90 minutes beginning when polls close at 7 p.m., Dillard said. The teams typically go until about midnight.

“Then we have our crews come back with fresh eyes, fresh brains in the morning,” he said.

The process can continue for days, depending on the number of ballots cast and how many of them arrive on the final day.

Finished ballots are filed by the teams into boxes, dated and stored securely.

Through the process, there is no real opportunity for outside actors to change the results on a single ballot, let alone enough to sway an election, Bucaro said. The computers aren’t connected to the internet, for one thing.

“So unless someone is physically here – and we have video surveillance and key card access – there is no way anyone could interfere with the election tabulation system,” she said.

The process is so secure, Denver County Clerk Paul López said, that not even he has access to the count rooms.

“It’s safe, it’s secure, it’s transparent, it has been tested, it’s tried, it’s true and it’s pandemic proof,” López said.

– Checking their work

The voting and ballot tabulation process contains built-in redundancies and safeguards, but Colorado officials built in at least two more.

The first is a risk-limiting audit which takes place about two weeks after each election. The Secretary of State’s Office requires county clerks – through bipartisan teams of election judges – to physically find a specific number of ballots and check those paper results against the votes tabulated by the computers.

The ballots that must be located are dictated by the random 10-digit numbers imprinted on them much earlier in the process, Dillard said.

“It’s comparing what the humans are reading against what the machine read,” Bucaro said. “It’s making sure they match and that we know the machine read them correctly.”

If mistakes are found, the process is followed by additional rounds of auditing. Too many mistakes could trigger a full hand recount. But multiple rounds of audits are rare, Dillard said.

For the June 30 primary, Griswold’s office set audit standards such that if there was an error in the count there would be a 96% chance it would be discovered during the audit.

For Denver, that meant judges had to find and check 555 ballots, more than twice the amount required by the next largest county’s audit, Dillard said.

“Denver has always nailed it first round with no discrepancies,” Dillard said.

Cases of fraud are incredibly rare, Bucaro, Dillard and López agreed. It’s something clerks look for and seriously guard against, but they’ve never noticed a statistically significant number of fraud causes.

In 2018, Griswold said, 0.0027% of 2,566,784 ballots cast statewide were referred to district attorneys for further investigation.

The conservative Heritage Foundation has recorded only 14 cases of election-related offenses in Colorado since 2005.

Williams said he recalled one study of Colorado, Oregon, Washington and two Eastern states where about 38 people were caught attempting to vote in multiple states. But those people were caught and prosecuted, he said.

In especially tight races, those votes could make a difference, Williams said. But that’s why Colorado has so many safeguards and redundancies.

“I am confident in our system,” he said.

After the audit, bipartisan teams return once more for what is called a canvass.

“They literally just go through the entire election,” Dillard said. “How many people turned out in this precinct? How many ballots did we reject because they were unsigned? How many unsigned ballots were fixed? How many ballots were disqualified?”

After the canvass – and no more than 22 days after an election – the results are certified, meaning they’re accurate and set in stone, Dillard said.

But still there’s one more safeguard: State law requires clerks to keep the ballots and envelopes, stored and secured, for 25 months. Just in case.

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