BY FREDA MIKLIN
With the primary election just a week away and a general election in five months’ time, on June 9, we toured the Arapahoe County ballot processing facility. It is in a warehouse-type building near Belleview Avenue and Federal Boulevard in Littleton.
Peg Perl, who has overseen election operations for the county since 2020, told us that the regular full-time elections staff of 15 swells up to 300 for a primary election and 600 for a general election, such as the one that will occur on November 8, 2022. The building has cameras throughout that run all the time, which is part of its combined physical and cyber security. Ballot drop-boxes around the county also have cameras. Additionally, every employee of the elections division must pass a background check. They also receive comprehensive training for their job.
Many employees during election season are people who have been referred for those jobs by a political party because “every step of the elections process (particularly ballot processing) is managed by bipartisan teams of (two) election professionals.”
Every room in the ballot processing center requires a card key for access. Employees’ IDs are programmed to allow them to enter only those rooms that are directly related to their job. If any county employee attempts to enter a room at the election facility for which they are not authorized, a record is made and reviewed of that attempt. Elections employees wear color-coded vests that signify their duties and the area in which they work, providing “an additional visual cue” as to where that person should be in the building.
The secure ballot processing operation in Arapahoe County consists of nine separate steps, all segregated to avoid any mishaps. The steps are:
All active Colorado voters who are eligible to vote in Arapahoe County elections are mailed a ballot (or two ballots in one envelope, for unaffiliated voters in a primary) about 22 days before election day. Eligible voters are active voters and inactive voters who have contacted the county to resolve address or other discrepancies.
As soon as ballots begin to be returned, two-person ballot security teams go to each drop box in the county daily (except on Election Day, when they go three times). Together, the team unlocks the box, removes the ballots, and places them in a secure container, completing chain-of-custody paperwork as they do each step. When they’ve picked up all the ballots from their assigned drop boxes, they return the sealed containers with the ballots to the ballot processing facility and turn them over to employees there, documenting each step. Ballot security teams are comprised of two people from two different political parties. They are commonly a Democrat and a Republican, but one person could be from a third party, such as Libertarian, or unaffiliated.
All the ballot envelopes are removed at the ballot processing center, placed in trays, and weighed in bulk to get an approximate count of the number of ballots received. In Arapahoe County, 95% to 98% of voters use mail ballots, with 90% depositing their ballots in drop boxes and the other 5% to 8% using U.S. mail. Only 2% to 5% of county voters vote in person. Mail voting began statewide in Colorado in 2013.
Ballot envelopes, which remain sealed, are next placed into sorting machines, where they are separated by types of envelopes (e.g., first-time voters’ envelopes require copies of identification to be included). Unique bar codes on the outside of the envelope are machine read to ensure that the sender is an Arapahoe County eligible voter who has not already voted in the current election. Any ballot envelope that doesn’t automatically match the programmed criteria is rejected by the machine reader. That initiates a process in which a bipartisan team physically examines the envelope to determine the reason it was rejected and whether the ballot envelope can be properly processed for the election. As ballot envelopes are counted and sorted, a digital photo is taken of the voter’s signature, which is visible from the outside. That photo is used to verify the voter’s identity. After this step is completed, voters who have signed up for Ballot Scan receive an email telling them that their ballot was received.
In Arapahoe County, computers compare the photos of voters’ signatures taken by the ballot sorting machines to recent ballots from the same voter and/or voter registration or motor vehicle division records. Any ballot that isn’t electronically matched is reviewed by a bipartisan team of election judges who physically examine the signatures. Any ballot with a signature that cannot be matched or a missing signature on the ballot envelope results in a “cure letter” being sent to the voter. It provides an opportunity to verify that it is their ballot so it can be counted. If no response to a cure letter is received in time (eight days after the election), that ballot envelope is never opened or processed. If a voter responds to a cure letter saying it is not their ballot, that envelope is referred to the district attorney for investigation. Most involve someone making a mistake. Almost none result in actual prosecution.
Accepted ballots are run through the ballot sorting machines again, which slit them open. Bipartisan teams remove the ballots from the envelopes and separate the ballots from the envelopes to protect voter anonymity. For the June 28 election, before ballots are removed from their envelopes, ballot envelopes are separated between voters affiliated with one of the two major political parties and those who are not affiliated so as to ensure that unaffiliated voters return only one party’s ballot, not both. If a voter returns both, neither is counted.
Opened ballots are scanned by bipartisan teams of election judges and actual votes are recorded in the election division software, which is certified secure by the Secretary of State.
Bipartisan teams of election judges examine digital images of ballots that were unable to be processed for any reason and try to determine voter intent.
On Election Day, beginning at 7:00 p.m. when polls are officially closed, election staff begins to tabulate votes using non-networked secure computers. That is when they begin to report preliminary results.
At every step of the process, there is a place for poll watchers to observe the steps being followed by elections personnel without disrupting their work, so as to provide maximum transparency. Though they are often behind glass, in some rooms, poll watchers can go inside to observe the process even more closely.
For the June 28primary, Peg Perl told us that the county mailed approximately 415,000 ballots to eligible voters. She estimates that 35% to 40% will be returned. It is much more likely that Arapahoe County unaffiliated voters who vote in this election will return a Republican ballot because there are many more contests in the GOP primary than in the Democratic primary. In Arapahoe County, 45% of voters are not affiliated with a political party.