Bipartisan judges handle 2016 ballots under strict procedures
Steamboat Springs — With Election Day 2016 six days away amidst one of the most hotly contested and tumultuous presidential election cycles in many years, Routt County Clerk Kim Bonner and her staff are tracking the return rate of mail-in ballots, and election judges are handling them according to strict procedures.
“We’re not at 40 percent yet,” Bonner said Wednesday. Of 16,961 ballots sent out, 6,931, or 38.66 percent of the total, had been returned. Wednesday was a pretty active day but not quite as busy as Oct. 31 when 992 ballots were returned. Another 652 came in Nov. 1, and 965 were returned Nov. 2.
Both Republican Party Chairman Chuck McConnell and Democratic Party Chairwoman Catherine Carson are encouraging people to vote early.
“We have been advised that voting in Routt County is expected to be very heavy and early voting is strongly encouraged,” McConnell wrote in an e-mail blast Oct. 26.
The County Clerk reports there are 5,150 active Democrats and 4,728 active Republicans in Routt County, but it’s the 6,726 active unaffiliated voters who may have the most influence over the outcome of national and local races here. The total number of active voters also includes 222 active Libertarians, 88 members of the Green Party and 47 voters who are registered with the American Constitution Party.
Once mail ballots arrive at the Routt County Courthouse, the county clerk’s staff and election volunteers from both major parties begin the work of opening and processing (but not counting) the ballots.
There’s more to it than most voters realize, and Bonner said she wants people to understand how much care is taken to ensure the ballots are handled and counted properly.
Colorado law allows county clerks to begin processing mail ballots 15 days prior to the election. Bipartisan teams go to the post office to pick up ballots and those dropped off in secure boxes like the drive-up box on the north side of the courthouse.
The next step requires specially trained, bipartisan election judges to compare the signature on the unopened envelope with a signature already on file. That process takes place in a secure room under video surveillance. A letter is sent to any voter whose signature on the ballot doesn’t appear to be a match.
In the same process, the voter is marked as having voted so that if an additional ballot from the same voter is received, it would not be accepted.
Next, a bipartisan “Opening Board” of four election judges, again working in a secured room under video surveillance, opens the ballot box and removes a batch. The names of voters are read aloud by one judge while a second checks and marks the printed list to ensure the names on the envelopes match the names on the list.
The first time the envelopes are opened comes when a judge slits the envelope, and a second removes the ballot (still in its secrecy sleeve). A third judge, who does not look at or handle the envelopes with the names on them, removes the ballot from the secrecy sleeve and passes it to a fourth judge who unfolds the ballot.
These steps are taken to ensure the ballots are cast by valid voters and to protect the privacy of the voter, Bonner said.
Batches of 25 ballots are placed in locked ballot boxes and stored in the clerk’s vault. Throughout the process, the clerk’s staff keeps count of the ballots that have been processed compared to the number of ballots received and scanned.
A dedicated computer and scanning machine — also under video surveillance and not connected to the internet — is used to actually record the votes.
Ballots are scanned in advance, but counting does not begin until 7 p.m. Nov. 8, or after the last voter has cast their vote at the Routt County Voter Service and Polling Center, whichever is latest.
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