How are votes counted in Routt County?

Republican Tina Kyprios and Democrat Catherine Carson work together to scan votes for the 2021 election.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Across from the Treasurer’s Office in the historic Routt County Courthouse is a room with some strict rules — the most interesting of which regard ink.

There are only green pens in Routt County’s elections room, where they count ballots that voters are required to fill out with black or blue ink — one of the many measures taken to ensure the accuracy of the vote.

“There was speculation, and so as a best practice, we just all decided in the state to disallow black and blue pens,” said Routt County Clerk and Recorder Kim Bonner.

Counting votes in Routt County is a multistep process, involves several different groups of people and has safeguards at every turn to ensure the final tally is accurate, which is especially important when elections are sometimes decided by just a handful of votes.

The process starts at the ballot box where voters drop off their ballots ahead of an election. As the election nears, the ballot frequency picks up, and on Election Day itself, Bonner said they are sometimes emptying the box every hour.

From there, they bring ballots into the Clerk’s Office, which has a machine election officials affectionately call Iggy, short for the actual name Agilisduo. The machine counts the number of ballot envelopes received and sorts out any with imperfections, ranging from a poorly sealed envelope to a ballot that belongs to a different year’s election. Each envelope is also photographed, capturing the signature on the envelope.

“We end up filming every piece of document that a voters turns in,” Bonner said. “Then we upload that into our voter registration system.”

These ballots are considered received at this point, but they are still entirely sealed in the envelopes the voters licked shut when they cast their ballots. They are then locked in ballot boxes and escorted down to the election room. At night, ballot boxes are locked in the vault in the Clerk and Recorder’s Office.

The next step is to verify the signature on the envelope, which requires an election judge to compare the voter’s signature with others on file for that particular voter. Because pictures are taken of every ballot, judges often have several signatures on file to compare them to, studying them for distinct patterns in particular letters to compare signatures from previous years.

Both a Democrat and a Republican election judge generally do this verification together, and they must agree on whether a ballot is accepted or not. If signatures don’t match, and the ballot is rejected, officials send a letter to the voter allowing them time to cure the ballot and ensure their vote is counted.

Ballots are, again, locked in ballot boxes while they wait for the next step.

Sharon Nereson, a Republican election judge, removes the ballot secrecy sleeve from the envelope, and passes it to Republican election judge Kathi Meyer, who removes the ballot from the sleeve. Meyer then passes it to Jim Beers, an independent election judge, who looks for stray marks on the ballot. It then goes to Democratic election judge Nancy Perricone, who mixes up batches before locking them in a ballot box.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

A different group of people, also representative of both parties, makes up the opening board. Officials use a machine to slice open each of the envelopes, and then the first person removes the ballot, still in the secrecy sleeve, from the envelope.

That is passed to another person, who removes the ballot from the secrecy sleeve, before passing it to the next person. That person inspects the ballot for stray marks or anything else that may prevent it from being scanned. In cases where the ballot is too damaged — sometimes with something spilled on it — officials of both parties together remake the ballot using an election voting machine, making note of the original and the copy.

The last person on the opening board shuffles batches of ballots together, mixing them up to ensure that someone couldn’t trace a ballot back to the original voter, because, while the ballot doesn’t have a voter’s name on it, the envelope does.

Ballots are then locked into boxes, again.

The next step is to scan ballots, which is what will ultimately count them, though nothing is tallied until after the polls close on election night.

Bonner said Tina Kyprios, a former chair of the Routt County Republicans, and Catherine Carson, chair of the Routt County Democrats, are members of her “veteran scanning crews.”

Democratic election judge Catherine Carson readys ballots to be scanned, while Routt County Elections Coordinator Sara Williams verifies how many and which votes are being counted.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

When they get the ballot boxes, they are sealed with a numbered tag that cannot be opened without being damaged. Kyprios and Carson verify the box hasn’t been tampered with and then start scanning ballots one batch at a time.

A stray mark over a barcode or a slight misalignment can gum up the scanning process, but when scanning without any issues, Carson said they can get through about a 1,000 ballots in less than an hour and a half.

Notes about each batch of ballots are made throughout the process. If a ballot is remade, removed from others because it needs to be cured, or if there is anything else different, officials write it down so they can quickly check back if there is a discrepancy.

One batch counted Monday had 26 ballots in the batch rather than 25, likely a counting error made by the opening board. In the event that the count doesn’t perfectly line up in the end, election officials refer back to these notes as the first places they look for any error.

“When we try to reconcile this at the end, if something doesn’t work, we will zero back to this batch,” Carson said.

The next step is called adjudication, which takes a closer look at ballots that have been flagged by the scanner as an over-vote, meaning a voter cast a vote for multiple candidates. These situations generally arise when a voter crosses out a vote after changing their mind or if there is a stray mark.

Elections Coordinator Sara Williams tells them which ballots were flagged by the system and need to be rechecked.

Catherine Carson and Tina Kyprios, election judges from opposite parties, look at a ballot to decipher the voter’s intent after it was flagged for review during the adjudication process of tallying votes. Elections Coordinator Sara Williams tells them which votes are flagged by the system and need to be reviewed.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Together, Carson and Kyprios look at the ballot and judge the voter’s intent based on rules laid out by the Secretary of State that consider pretty much every possible situation. Almost always, it is clear what the voter’s intent is, and each of them said they almost never have disagreed on the voter’s intent. If they ever did, Bonner would then weigh in.

After adjudication, ballots are put back into ballot boxes and sealed, once again, where they will not be reopened until weeks later when officials conduct various audits on the count or if there is a recount.

Bonner said she is required to report whatever results she has as soon after the polls close at 7 p.m. on election night as possible. In a typical Routt County election, Bonner said they generally have all the votes tallied and are able to report results by about 9 p.m., though they can still change slightly as voters cure ballots.

“The majority of it is scanned in by 7 p.m.,” Bonner said. “We probably have all of Monday in there and part of Election Day — it’s a pretty good indication.”

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