Colorado is one of three states that conducts elections by mail. Every registered voter receives a ballot in their mailbox ahead of Election Day, which they can mail back, or place in an official drop box.
It’s then up to a team of volunteer election judges to make sure ballots get securely and accurately counted. In Pitkin County, it takes 250 volunteers, as well as a team of elected officials to pull this off. I recently took a trip to the Pitkin County Administration Building to see this in action.
Roughly 90 percent of Pitkin County voters either mail in their ballots, or drop them off.
I watched as Ray Parrots dropped off his ballot. Tracy Murtaugh sat at the election table. She is responsible for greeting people as they come in, and showing them where to drop off their ballots. She makes sure they’ve signed the back of their envelope and has them sign-in, as well.
Once a ballot like Parrot’s gets dropped into the box, it is carried down with others to the basement. Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder Janice Vos Caudill is in charge of Pitkin County elections.
She led me down a flight of stairs and through a locked door that only five people can open.
A downstairs conference room was transformed into a high-tech fortress. There was 24/7 video surveillance and several workstations with computers. Stacks of bright red boxes, full of ballots, lined temporary shelves around the walls. It looked like the administrative wing of Santa’s workshop.
Two women poured over a computer and a stack of white envelopes. Their job is to look at the signatures on the outside of the envelopes. Judges work in partisan pairs: a Democrat and a Republican.
If both judges agree that something with the signature is off, they’ll reject it and the voter will be notified they need to fix, or “cure,” their ballot. After elections, uncured ballots are forwarded to the District Attorney’s office.
Accepted ballots move on to the next workstation.
Three judges worked along a “disassembly” line, to remove ballots from their envelopes, like taking apart a Russian nesting doll.
The first person unsealed the large envelope and took out the ballot, in its secrecy sleeve. They handed that over to the next judge, who removed the ballot from the sleeve and handed it to the last judge, who makes sure there are no identifying marks, like a signature or initials, on the actual ballot.
"It’s a process that assures anonymity for each voter. We like to assure transparent, accurate elections, but we also assure anonymity for a how a person voted," she said.
A judge took the ballots to another locked room, where they were fed in batches through one of just two counting machines.
The “counting machines” are off-the-shelf scanners, the kind you would get at any office supply store. They’re attached to a computer that analyzes the ballots; if it detects a problem, like double vote or an accidental mark, it’ll get kicked out, according to Vos Caudill.
“Two judges, a democrat and a republican, will decide the voter’s intent," she said.
When those judges reach a decision, they’ll manually put it in the computer.
While the idea of a volunteer having this kind of access might sound scary, Vos Caudill said this is part of why we trust the election process: It’s run by our neighbors.
Votes are tallied in a single computer that is completely disconnected from the Internet, so that’ it’s not susceptible to cyber attacks. All staff and volunteers are trained to recognize threats to election security. While no system is perfect, Vos Caudill said this one is pretty darn safe.
"An individual, in order to flip votes, has to get through two security doors, 24/7 surveillance, there’s no internet in here. And know how to get into our system with two-factor authentication you need passwords and codes ," said Vos Caudill.
It would be hard to hack, but if it was, it would leave behind clues.
Every time ballots change hands, everytime a door is opened, that action is recorded in a log.
Even after the polls close, people are working to ensure votes are safe and accurate.
Ballots are kept for months after elections, just in case, there’s a problem. And they’re audited - sample batches are pulled and analyzed to be sure they’re statistically similar to overall totals. If something doesn’t look right - there could be a recount.
With all these measures in place, Vos Caudill said the most important part is that people show up and vote.