Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the journey your ballot takes to be counted

Bipartisan election judges undergo FBI background checks and professional training

By: - October 24, 2020 10:36 am

Transport judges Steve Sticker, left, and Dean Burton lift dozens of ballots out of a bag to be weighed at the Jefferson County elections office on Oct. 21, 2020. (Eli Imadali for Colorado Newsline)

Mail-in voting is well underway in Colorado and already shattering records. As of Oct. 23, over 1.4 million ballots have been returned in the state, according to the secretary of state’s office. During the 2016 elections, 706,135 ballots had been returned by this time. 

In Colorado, all drop boxes opened and started accepting ballots on Oct. 19. The last day to mail in your ballot is Oct. 26, but voters can still drop their ballots off in one of their county’s designated drop boxes up until election day on Nov. 3. Coloradans can track the status of their ballots using a new statewide system that sends text messages and emails with updates. 

Pam Anderson, the executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, said that the election procedures and security protocols across the state are consistent, with minor differences depending on the size of the county.

“It’s dictated by statute, and by secretary of state rules,” said Anderson, who served as the Jefferson County Clerk for eight years. “One of the beautiful things about our system is the consistency that we’ve built into it.”

Ballots await counting at the Jefferson County elections office on Oct. 21, 2020. (Eli Imadali for Colorado Newsline)

She said the biggest difference between counties is in the technology they use. For example, larger counties such as Jefferson or Denver, use ballot sorters while more rural districts, like Logan County, might have a more manual process. 

Regardless of the size of the county, election officials are required to follow the same steps. “So 24-hour surveillance, sealed drop boxes, bipartisan teams being present, all of that,” Anderson said. “The same types of security protocols are identical.”

Behind the scenes

The first step: Picking up the ballots

The bulk of the people handling ballots are election judges, also referred to as temporary election workers. 

“They’re hired by us, they go through FBI background checks, and then get trained by us in how to do whatever assignment they have,” said George Stern, Jefferson County’s clerk and recorder.

The election workers are identified with different-colored lanyards depending on what political party the person is affiliated with. For every part of the process, a balance of people from different parties must be involved. 

Cynthia Rasor, a logistics project coordinator who’s been working as an election judge for 30 years, scans in secure bags full of ballots at the Jefferson County elections building on Oct. 21, 2020. She said this year, there have been significantly more early ballots coming in. (Eli Imadali for Colorado Newsline)

“It has to be two people of different affiliations,” Stern said. “So an unaffiliated and a Republican, for example, could constitute a bipartisan team. But you’ll typically see blue, red and purple badges. You’ll also see green for minor parties so a Libertarian and a Democrat could cut the bipartisan team.”

The Jefferson election office has 13 full-time election staff members and between 400 and 500 temporary election workers who were hired and trained in the months leading up to the elections.

In Jefferson County, bipartisan teams of election workers collect ballots from the 36 drop boxes distributed throughout the county. Ballots are placed in special sealed bags with a unique barcode, which gets scanned and checked in when they arrive back at the Jefferson County Elections Division in Golden. Every drop box is under 24/7 video surveillance, and the various rooms throughout the election center have special security clearance and cameras.

Cuong Nguyen, a technical support technician, marks a ballot that needs special processing at the Jefferson County elections office on Oct. 21, 2020. (Eli Imadali for Colorado Newsline)

Cody Swanson, election director for Jefferson County, said that election officials rarely have had to use the ballot-box cameras for election security purposes. But they do provide footage to local law enforcement to help investigate other reports.

Once the ballots arrive at the office, they are removed from the sealed carriers and dumped into large containers. A group of election workers then organizes them on shiny metal tables to be facing the same way before they get funneled into a giant ballot sorter. The machine can process 11,000 ballots in an hour, and each ballot goes through the sorter twice. 

Cynthia Rasor, the logistics project coordinator for Jefferson County’s election division, said she’s been astounded at the number of ballots workers have received so far. As of Wednesday, Jefferson County had already received 171,397 ballots. “This is the most I’ve seen since I’ve been working here,” said Rasor, who’s been with the department for 30 years, on Tuesday. 

Ballots race through a sorter at the Jefferson County elections office on Oct. 21, 2020. (Eli Imadali for Colorado Newsline)

The sorter scans every signature that’s on the outside of ballots and sends them to the signature verification room. During the process, election workers remove other mail that was accidentally dropped in the ballot box.

“Over the last year or so, we’ve gotten credit cards, prenuptial agreements, all sorts of stuff,” Swanson said. “We always get grocery lists. We did get an envelope full of cash once. But we’ve been able to return all of that stuff. But they never came to get the prenup. I think about that sometimes.”

Voter signatures are then verified and ballots get digitally counted

Once the ballots are sorted by the machine and the signatures are scanned, bipartisan teams of election workers trained by FBI handwriting experts manually compare the signatures from each envelope to ones on the voter’s record. 

Signature verifiers work at the Jefferson County elections office on Oct. 21, 2020. (Eli Imadali for Colorado Newsline)

If the team determines that the voter’s signature does not match what’s on record, it will be rejected and the voter will be notified. Voters with rejected signatures have eight days after the election to get a signed affidavit and copy of their ID to election officials to get their ballots counted.

After the signature verification process, the ballots are removed from their envelopes face down by another bipartisan team to ensure voter privacy and are evaluated for any damage. Ballots are then combined into larger batches to be counted.

If a ballot is damaged — stained with wine or food or is ripped — another bipartisan team will work to scan the ballot and duplicate it. The original is then removed and kept in a secure area in case it is randomly selected during a post-election audit.

Election judges work to duplicate damaged ballots in one corner of the Jefferson County elections office on Oct. 21, 2020. (Eli Imadali for Colorado Newsline)

The ballots are then transported to another room where they will be counted using digital scanners that have undergone rigorous preelection testing, according to Swanson. The results are then securely stored on a closed network and not released until 7 p.m. on Election Night. The machines are never connected to the internet. 

This is also where bipartisan teams go through the adjudication process, which occurs when a voter crosses out or changes their vote on their ballot. 

“If you follow our directions and you make a mistake and you cross it out and fill in another one, that’s going to come to these folks,” Swanson said. “The system would want to count that as an overvote and it would cancel out your vote because you filled in two bubbles. But these folks can go, ‘Obviously, this is their intent, we’ll remove that vote’ and we can move on.”

Ballot tabulator Becky Brandl readies ballots to go through a scanner and tabulation machine to count votes at the Jefferson County elections office on Oct. 21, 2020. (Eli Imadali for Colorado Newsline)

If any election worker, including poll watchers, are disrupting the voting process, staff can ask them to leave. Swanson said he’s never had to do that.

“Typically, the poll watchers think they have an idea of what’s going on and then they get here and go, ‘Holy crap … this is not what I thought it was,’” Swanson said. “We’ve seen drastic changes in kind of mentalities as soon as folks come and see what we actually do. We’re not just in a back room tossing stuff around.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Moe Clark
Moe Clark

Moe Clark is a freelance journalist and former Colorado Newsline reporter who covered criminal justice, housing, homelessness and other social issues.