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How Concerned Should Coloradans Be About Voter Fraud?

Grace Hood

With Colorado's eligible voting population around 4 million and several tight midterm races, the state's new vote-by-mail system is being put to the test in 2014.

With the high volume of ballots come investigations into Colorado's new election system. Most recently, conservative activist James O'Keefe traveled to Colorado to show liberal and Democratic organizers allegedly supporting voter fraud.

So how easy is it for county clerks to detect fraudulent mail-in ballots?

Signing the outside of your ballot is an afterthought for most voters. But Angela Myers, clerk and recorder for Larimer County, said it's her primary validation tool for detecting fraud. Automated scanning and validating signatures is the first step in processing and counting ballots.

"That is able to cure 50, 60 percent of signatures," she said.

For those that can't be verified or "cured" with machines, human interpretation becomes important. Larimer County — as required by law — uses bipartisan election judges to make the final decision on whether signatures on the envelope match what's in the system.

"If someone does try to vote someone else's envelope or ballot that signature won't match," she said. "Every single one that doesn't match goes to the District Attorney after the election if it's not cured."

The by-mail election is the result of legislation passed by a Democratic-majority state legislature in 2013. While opposed to the new law, Colorado Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler added additional safeguards for those who drop off more than one ballot at a polling location instead of mailing them.

"There's a certain level unease when somebody sees someone with a stack full of ballots being jammed into a mail drop box," said Rich Coolidge, spokesman for Colorado's Secretary of State.

Coolidge said the Colorado Secretary of State’s office is taking steps starting in 2015 to prevent concerns over so-called ballot stuffing.

According to rule 7.2.5 [.pdf], it will be against the law to drop off more than 10 ballots in any election. Rule 7.2.6 [.pdf] says ballot envelopes will be changed to include a section for voters to fill out if a third-party drops off their ballot at a clerk and recorder’s office.

It will be up to local clerk and recorders to enforce this law.

Another area of concern for the office is related to witness signatures — which can appear when a voter is technically unable to sign his or her name. The voter may just mark an "x," or leave the line blank. The Secretary of State's office is worried that clerk and recorders will count that vote.

"If there is a systematic bias in the system, there hasn't been much evidence from what we've seen from other states."

Larimer County's Angela Myers said such instances where a witness signs the ballot are rare. When it does happen, a match is initiated with whatever mark the voter put on his or her voter registration. Unless there's a match, the vote isn't counted.

"If that doesn't match for them they'll still get an eight-day letter," said Myers, referring to a letter that is sent to any voter whose signature can't be "cured" or matched with what's in the system.

The letter gives voters eight days to visit the clerk and recorder, and resolve any discrepancies.

Colorado State University Political Science professor Kyle Saunders said voter fraud is possible in any system, mail or otherwise. But there's no reason to suggest that a mail ballot is inherently flawed.

"If there is a systematic bias in the system, there hasn't been much evidence from what we've seen from other states who have implemented mail ballots for being any more problematic than other systems," said Saunders.

In 2013, an Oregon elections worker was sentenced to jail time for illegally marking at least two ballots in an isolated incident.

For his part, Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler has yet to see many convictions related to voter fraud since he took office in 2010. After a lengthy round-up of potential illegal voters in 2012, just two cases are pending in Arapahoe County Court.

Editor’s Note: Due to incorrect information from the Colorado Secretary of State’s office, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that voters will be limited to dropping off no more than 10 ballots in 2014. The election rules referencing that limit go into effect January 2015.

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