VIDEO: How Colorado's Voting Systems Ensure Your Ballot Is Secure And Counted Accurately
As voting misinformation mounts, Colorado is preparing to start automatically sending registered voters their ballots by mail this weekend. Residents can mail back their ballots, put them in dropboxes or they can vote in person at vote centers up to and on Election Day. But they all get counted the same. Here is a behind the scenes look at how Colorado keeps its elections fair, accurate and secure.
During the first presidential debate last week, President Donald Trump repeated his unsubstantiated claims about mail-in voting systems like Colorado’s.
“You’re sending out 80 million ballots, these people are unequipped to handle it, number one; number two, they cheat, they cheat,” he said, taking issue specifically with “unsolicited” ballots.
The morning after the debate, in a brightly lit downtown Greeley room that used to be a vault, a Weld County Republican and Democrat face each other and swear in, surrounded by security cameras.
Up to 180,000-plus Weld County registered voters will have their ballots counted here in the coming weeks — if they decide to return them. There are similar rooms across the state, preparing to count ballots from up to 4 million plus registered voters, all of whom will automatically receive so-called “unsolicited” ballots in the mail. Colorado elections have run this way since the state went to an all-mail ballot system in 2013.
The two Weld County political party representatives (chosen by their party chairs) are swearing in because they’re here to participate in a public test of ballot counters and voting machines. They say they will “strive to prevent fraud” and protect election integrity.
“This test really matters due to the fact that we want to make sure that all of our machines are working properly and correctly and how they're supposed to,” said Weld County clerk and recorder Carly Koppes, “so that when we are actually counting voters' ballots that we can say with 100% certainty that our machines are working in 100% order.”
County election offices are legally required to do this test before every election. Clerks, like Koppes, have been preparing for this election all year. Koppes herself has 16 years of election running experience under her belt. Clerks have a depth of experience with this all-mail voting system and they’re all, regardless of party affiliation, very confident in it.
“Now we have not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it’s by mail or otherwise.”Christopher Wray, the Trump-appointed Federal Bureau of Investigation director, to Congress in late September.
“I love this time. All of my team and myself’s hard work has come to where it’s now time to go. Planning’s done, we’ve crossed all our t’s, we’ve dotted all of our i’s,” Koppes said. “It’s long hours and long days but it’s definitely worth it when you come to the close of voting at 7 p.m. (on election night) and you have seen just how much all of you work and effort has come.”
“I am an elections geek and an elections nerd and I love it,” she added.
Once they’ve been sworn in, both representatives pick a ballot scanner and two touch screen voting machines (which will go to in-person polling places) to test. Then they’re given 25 ballots and are told to fill them out as they please.
As the representatives fill out the ballots, Koppes and her elections team run more than 2,000 of their own test ballots through the scanner, testing each bubble or write-in slot that voters across all precincts could possibly fill in.
The two party representatives are then asked to compare the scanner’s vote tally of those 2,000 ballots with the hand tally created by Koppes and her team ahead of time. Everything matches up.
“I mean there isn't anything that is, you know, necessarily simple when it comes to elections,” Koppes said. “And so I think anybody that thinks elections are easy are not 100% accurate in their assumption.”
There are175 pages of rules (including new ones for COVID-19 spread prevention) dictating how county clerks run elections. All of the ballot counting on and leading up to Election Day happens in election judge teams composed of at least one registered voter from both of the main parties.
“We do put them through very intense training prior to every single election, and even if they're returning judges, we are retesting them and retraining them every time,” Koppes said.
Unaffiliated voters are welcome to join the ballot counting as well as accuracy testing, they just don’t usually volunteer, Koppes said. Third parties are also welcome and are often invited by her office to join as well, but those parties don’t take up on the offer the way the GOP and Democrats do.
When the ballot scanner detects a write-in or a bubble that is crossed out or not filled in properly, it sends an image of that ballot to a computer. It is then up to the judges to adjudicate — to look at the ballot and determine what the voter intended with their marking. There is a 31-page book of errant or unusual marking examples from previous elections that judges turn to if they’re unsure. The judge teams have to agree on everything about a ballot; if they don’t another set of judges is brought in to mediate.
“It is up to them to make it. Myself and my team never make those decisions,” She said.
Cameras are strategically placed, Koppes said, to ensure there are no blind spots where nefarious things could happen. Even the adjudication computers are hooked up to bigger monitors placed higher on the wall to ensure that everyone in the room and the cameras can see what is happening on them at all times.
For those that still don’t trust these people to handle their ballots:
“I would absolutely say come be an election judge yourself and come in and see the processes and learn what we do and how we train them and all the different protocols that we have,” she said.
Once counted, ballots are sent to the official election server, locked in an adjoining room. The server is not connected to the internet or any other external systems, only to the ballot counting tools in the next room.
Ballots counted in the weeks before Election Day are locked in the server until 7 p.m. election night, preventing tampering or early announcement of total ballots cast. No one is allowed to be in the server room alone.
Anne la Plante has been the Weld County Democratic Party’s tester on and off for about 20 years. She purposely fills out a few ballots in odd or incorrect ways to make sure the scanner processes them correctly. La Plante says she has more trust in the process now than ever before.
She’s also happy that BallotTrax is making it easy for people to keep track of their ballot.
“Statewide they’re going to have the ballot tracking set up so you don’t have to go in and ask for it, it’ll just be automatic,” she said. “You’ll know when your ballot has been received and when it's processed.”
When it comes time to make sure their ballots are counted correctly, both la Plante and her Republican counterpart, Tony Groeger, compare the scanner’s count of their 25 ballots to their hand tallies.
They also submit the same ballots through the touchscreen voting machines and repeat the process. They also test one ballot on an audio voting machine, designed to be accessible to those who are blind or have low vision. Each time the machines’ counts and their hand tallies all match up.
“It just gives me a reassurance that the whole process works,” Groeger said. “It's controlled very well.”
His confidence in the process begins and ends at the county line.
“I trust Weld County but I don't know about other counties now, and I don’t know about other states,” he said. “I personally know Carly and I just think the process is really pretty sound.”
The checks and balances keeping the election fair, accurate and secure are the same in Denver, Greeley, Yuma or anywhere else in the state. Less than 1% of the 2 million ballots cast in Colorado’s 2016 presidential election were rejected due to identity verification issues, according to the Secretary of State.
“With that we do send you, the voter, a letter asking you ‘did you vote?’ and if you did make sure and sign this affidavit and provide us proper ID to make sure that we can then count your ballot,” Koppes said.
Voters have until eight days after the election to prove their identity. Koppes says very few of the between 100 and 200 Weld County voters whose ballots get rejected each election set things straight in time to still get counted. She wishes more people did so their votes can be included, especially in close elections.
“Otherwise, after that we give you a couple of chances to try and rectify that issue with us. If not, then we give it over to the district attorney for investigation,” she said.
Koppes notes that people tend to respond more to the DA than they do to her office.
In Colorado and nationally there is no evidence that mailed ballots lead to rampant voter fraud. In 2017, Wayne Williams, the Republican Secretary of State at the time, said voter fraud has been “rare” and “that Colorado employs important safeguards to make sure its elections are as secure as possible.”
“Now we have not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it’s by mail or otherwise,” Christopher Wray, the Trump-appointed FBIdirector, explained to Congress in late September.
But he said his office takes the issue very seriously regardless and adds that fraud does occasionally happen on the local level.
“Certainly to change a federal election outcome by mounting that kind of fraud at scale would be a major challenge for an adversary,” Wray said. “But people should make no mistake, we’re vigilant as to the threat and watching it carefully because we’re in uncharted new territory.”
In 2017, Weld County successfully prosecuted a former chairman of the state Republican party for signing his ex-wife’s ballot. Clerk Koppes sees that case as evidence of the veracity of the protections the state and her office has in place.
Clerks and the Secretary of State also regularly check interconnected voter rolls before and during the election to update addresses and keep people from voting twice or voting while dead.
“We have a statewide voter registration system,” Koppes said. “And with that when you turn in your ballot either through dropbox or mail and we verify that signature, we're marking on your voter record that you have cast a ballot and then you know if you try to go in person or you try and go to another county and vote, they're going to pull up your voter registration record and they're going to see that you've already cast a ballot.”
Just like election judges who evaluate ballots during Election Day, highly trained judges check ballot envelope signatures against an individual’s government records.
“We give them very intense training. We even bring in a handwriting analysis expert to come in and assist us with our training,” she said. “And so they are going through and looking at all the different dynamics of somebody’s signature.”
If the judges are even a bit uncomfortable about a signature, she said, they reject the ballot to keep the vote secure. Approved ballots are then sent to a separate “opening board” of judges, whose entire job is to make sure the ballot envelope hasn’t been tampered with and then to open it and pass just the ballot on to the counting judges.
“I can never tie your ballot back to you as soon as it leaves that envelope,” Koppes said. “So once it gets to the counting board, I don't even know where my ballot is.”
This keeps the counting judges from knowing a voter’s name, occupation, race or ethnicity, gender, party affiliation or any other identifying information.
And when all is said and done, clerks do an audit after the election to double-check that everything was fair, accurate and secure.
But one thing these protections don’t prevent? Misinformation.
“I can understand where these falsnesses come from, these fallacies that are portrayed because it only takes a couple of people to light that fire,” Koppes said.
Though Koppes sees a silver lining in all the noise and confusion, she says more people than ever before have been contacting her office with questions. And she said she’s never demeaning to anyone who believes or spreads false information.
“I am glad that we are having, actually, a lot more conversations with voters and they are taking more interest because the more interest there is, the more likely they're going to return their ballot to us,” she said.
Most Weld County voters have returned their ballot by mail or dropbox in each election for the seven years this system has been in place, Koppes said. She’s not sure what to expect this year and she’s ready for however many people vote in-person —though she warns COVID-19 protections may slow things down at the polling places.
“We always plan for high turnout,” she said.
Clerk Angela Myers in neighboring Larimer County said she understands if people want to vote in-person, but “if you think you must come into a voter service and polling center and can't, for some reason, vote that mail ballot you receive, call us first. We will see if there's another alternative that we can provide for you, that doesn't require that you come in so that you can stay safe (and) our voters, our election judges can stay safe during times of COVID.”
The biggest advice all the county clerks KUNC has interviewed consistently give is this: If you’re worried about how to cast your vote or how secure the election is, contact them directly. They’re more than happy to talk and answer the hard questions.
You can hear and read more from other Northern Colorado clerkshere.