Colorado passes risk-limiting audit of 2021 election
The election buzz has settled and newly elected officials around the county are already or will soon settle into their new roles — even though the last school board seat in South Routt County did keep the suspense going beyond election night.
The result in that race was delayed until ballots were fully cured, which allows a voter up to eight days after the election to correct an error that led to their ballot not initially being counted.
Though, even when all ballots have been counted and results are finalized, an election judge’s job isn’t over.
After every election, Colorado conducts a risk-limiting audit of the vote, which is meant to ensure statistical confidence in the outcome of the election and that the winners the voting system produces reflects whom the voters chose.
Every county in the state — with the exception of two that count votes by hand — participates in the audit, and the state as a whole needs to meet the risk limit; otherwise, every county has to do it again.
“We were one of the first states that implemented it,” Routt County Clerk and Record Kim Bonner said earlier this month during the audit. “Other states are following suit because voters need that confidence that the outcome is correct.”
The audit has a risk limit of 3%, which means that if an election had an incorrectly reported outcome, the audit would catch the error 97 out of 100 times. When passed, the audit “offers a very strong level of evidence” that the reported outcome was correct, according to the Colorado Secretary of State.
When votes are counted, they are assigned a batch and ballot number, allowing them to be identified from the other ballots collected, which at this point do not contain the voter’s name. This information is then uploaded to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.
The Secretary of State picks out a certain number of ballots to be audited, or checked. The ballots are chosen at random and need to be retrieved from the various blue metal ballot boxes they are put in once counted. To get the initial random number needed for the system to select ballots, officials roll 20 10-sided dice during a public meeting.
Routt County was required to audit 63 ballots, which meant Bonner and elections coordinator Sara Williams had to fish them out of the roughly dozen boxes that hold the county’s 9,577 votes cast in this year’s election.
“It’s completely random as to how many each county gets, and it can be totally the opposite of what you think,” Bonner said.
The ballot is then handed off to a different team because, when counting votes initially, Bonner and Williams were both helping with adjudication of various ballots. The audit requires a different person to inspect the ballot a second time.
The election judges need to be different, too, though there is still one from each party like when the votes were counted.
Jenny Thomas, the county’s deputy chief clerk and recorder, sits at a computer where she enters the results the election judges inspect on the ballot into the Secretary of State’s system.
Democrat election judge Nancy Perricone and Republican election judge Barb Ficke inspect each ballot, relaying the results they see to Thomas. The state is specifically looking at one statewide race, Proposition 119, and a local race, the District 1 race for Steamboat Springs Council. Still, they enter the entire ballot into the system.
The state passed this audit on the first try last week, giving voters confidence the outcome is correct.
Across the state, the audit turned up about 40 discrepancies, one of which was in Routt County, according to the Secretary of State’s office. On that ballot, the voting machine read a stray mark in the bubble for James Hoff as a vote for him in the District 3 South Routt School Board Race, where he was running unopposed.
When adjudicated during the audit, Perricone and Ficke determined that was not an intentional vote, so the audit board decided it was an under vote, which is when a particular race is left blank, and one vote was taken away from Hoff.
“It’s basically a discrepancy between how it was adjudicated and how the machine read it,” Bonner said, giving an example of a discrepancy. “There’s a minimal amount of space that has to be filled in in that oval. For instance, if there was a check that you didn’t think filled up enough space, and you adjudicated it one way, but the machine counted it, that would be a discrepancy.”
When the audit is complete, the county is required to maintain the ballots for 25 months. They are kept in a vault in the basement of the courthouse that is under constant video surveillance, just like the room where the initial count and audit are conducted.
If someone is skeptical of the election’s validity or security, Bonner suggests they should become an election judge to see the steps taken to ensure security.
“I feel we are secure; our county has been fantastic,” Ficke said.
“I was blown away when I started working here with how careful it is,” Perricone added. “Get off your couch and volunteer.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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