Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.” – John Quincy Adams
When I signed on to be an election judge in 2018, I thought—correctly—the job might be fun and interesting and I might meet some new people. But I never expected a global pandemic would shine a bright spotlight on the 2020 presidential election.
With or without a pandemic, elections can go awry in many directions. Pets and deceased people may be erroneously listed on voter rolls. Electronic voting machines can malfunction, showing the wrong list of candidates and issues or miscounting votes that are cast. Hanging chads were a memorable problem in the 2000 presidential election. Reports are rampant, especially from the Jim Crow era in the South, about eligible voters who were prevented either from registering or from casting a vote. Interference in U.S. elections by foreign interests seems to be an inexhaustible topic of civic discourse.
Some criticize the use of the postal system in elections, saying that it increases the likelihood of fraud and other problems. But five states currently mail out all their ballots—Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington, as well as Colorado. In Colorado, media and outside jurisdictions have taken note of how well the system runs.
I was glad when Denver shifted from conventional elections with an option to cast an absentee ballot. When I worked for FEMA I had to make a point to stay on top of receiving my ballots in whatever unlikely locations I suddenly found myself. For me, having all mail-out ballots is much simpler and I continue to like it, even though I can predict my whereabouts much more readily than I could before I left FEMA.
As an election judge, I’ve observed and even participated in some steps taken to assure the integrity of Denver elections. I also researched how those step fit into the process from registration to auditing.
Convenience And Choice For Voters
The Colorado Secretary of State’s office, which oversees elections, strives to provide convenience and choice for the electorate. Voters can register by mail or online ahead of time, or in person as late as Election Day. Regardless of when or how they register, requirements are the same:
- Be a U.S. Citizen
- Be a resident of Colorado for 22 days prior to Election Day
- Be 18 years old on or before Election Day
- Not be serving a sentence of detention, confinement, or parole for a felony conviction
First-time voters must provide a photocopy of a valid ID along with either their registration form or ballot or both. Acceptable documents range from driver’s licenses and U.S. passports to utility bills and bank statements.
On one hand, Colorado law requires prospective voters to affirm, but not necessarily document, that they are citizens when they register to vote. On the other, the Secretary of State’s website states, “documents issued to not lawfully present and temporarily lawful individuals … are not acceptable forms of identification.”
Before mailing ballots, election officials check their rolls against death certificates and felony convictions. Ballots are sent about three weeks before Election Day to all qualified voters who registered in time. Each ballot lists the races appropriate for the individual voter. For example, in the June 2020 primary, separate ballots were sent for Democrats, Libertarians and Republicans. Only voters in District Six received ballots for District Six candidates, and so on. I love getting my ballot early so I can take my time researching candidates and issues.
After marking their ballots and signing the envelopes, voters have options for ways to return them. They may apply their own stamps and use U.S. mail. They can place them in secure drop-off boxes, which are located throughout Denver at recreation centers and elsewhere. They can go in person to drop them off at Voter Service and Polling Centers, which can be found at many locations during election season.
In Denver, the number of registered voters in July 2020 was 427.052 out of a total of 490,355 citizens of voting age, according the 2018 census data. To help with administering the election November 3 general election, the Denver Elections Division sent an email to prospective temporary election judges, including me, in July. Before Election Day, the 26 full-time election workers will be joined by 1080 to 1200 temporary workers, all of whom have passed background checks by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
A few temporary workers begin even before the Voter Service and Polling Centers start going up, which usually happens shortly after ballots are mailed. Working with one or more partners from a party other than their own, temporary staffers at the centers are equipped to perform a variety of tasks. At some locations, drivers can hand their ballots to the workers for placement in a locked ballot box. Staff can help voters register and, for those who spoiled or lost their ballots, staff can issue duplicate ballots. They can also help voters who prefer to vote on a tablet instead of submitting a paper ballot.
Other election judges, working in pairs reflecting more than one party, circulate around the city, picking up ballots from centers and drop-off boxes and bringing them under lock and key to election headquarters. The headquarters building is an inviting structure located in the city’s civic center, but in terms of cyber security it’s a fortress. Computers used to process ballots are in a closed or air-gap system that is in no way connected to the Internet and they’re in impenetrable spaces with multiple cameras. No hacking here!
After the ballots are received at headquarters, while they are still in their envelopes, election judges of various parties verify the signatures. They do this by checking the signatures on the envelopes against signatures on file. In the process, workers can see any duplicate ballots that may have been submitted and assure that only the first one is counted.
The next step is to prepare the ballots by mechanically separating them from their envelopes and privacy sleeves without any person or machine seeing how any individual voted.
After this step, the ballots come to the counting room, which is where I usually work among voters of my party and other parties. The room is dedicated to two primary functions and lots of trouble shooting.
The most obvious function is recording the votes cast so computers can accurately tally them. The other is imprinting each ballot with a unique identifying number for auditing purposes. The data showing how each ballot was marked is recorded in a cast vote record or CVR, which is sent to the Secretary of State. The office of the secretary conducts risk-limiting audits to make sure the CVR and physical ballots actually match. This involves finding the ballots selected randomly for the audit, so procedures are in place to make finding individual ballots as easy as possible. (Since the ballots and envelopes are separated before the ballots even enter the counting room, there is no way for anyone to identify who cast any particular ballot.) When too many audited ballots are recorded wrongly, an additional round of auditing may be necessary, leading up to a full recount.
Also in the counting room, we duplicate ballots that cannot be recorded and counted by the computer, maybe because they are damaged or maybe because they came in electronic form from overseas. Working in bipartisan pairs, we initial both the original and the duplicate ballot, which are stored together after the election and are available for the audit.
We also adjudicate ballots, trying to interpret the voter’s intent when the computer cannot. For example, we may see a ballot where the voter seemed to vote for two candidates. If we inspect the image of the ballot on a computer screen, we can tell whether two names were marked the same way in which case we judge that it is an actual overvote and no vote is counted. On the other hand, if the voter marked bubbles for both candidates, but then scratched out the name of candidate A, placing a big X over the corresponding bubble, we would judge that the voter intended to vote for candidate B.
During all of these steps, poll watchers may observe the process to help assure it’s fair and above-board, and just to see how it works.
And the winner is …
Results are unknown until 7 p.m. on Election Day when the polls close and an unofficial count is posted on the Elections Division website. As counting continues, updated unofficial results are posted frequently. Results become certified by the seventeenth day after a general election, following a risk-limiting audit and inspection by a bipartisan Cavass Board.
When I’ve worked in previous elections, we hovered together, especially for tasks we performed in pairs. For the June 29 primary, we practiced hand hygiene, wore masks and kept our distance. It worked just as well, even though we took up more space.
Additional details are provided in a Denver Elections Division graphic and videos about the life cycle of a ballot at https://www.denvergov.org/content/denvergov/en/denver-elections-divison/voter-election-information/ballot-life-cycle.html.
Additional information on voting in Colorado is available in this video from the Secretary of State’s office: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KPn5e61-PEI.A valuable source for this post, Alton P. Dillard II, communications manager for the Denver Elections Division, reviewed it for balance and