A democracy is a democracy when it elects its leaders in free and fair elections. Trust in, and acceptance of, the results of those elections is the bedrock of American democracy. Those societies where one side refuses to accept any election result that isn’t a win for their candidate are not democracies — they are authoritarian forms of government.
That question of trust in government underlays the question asked by Ark Valley Voice (AVV) during its Chaffee County Commissioner Candidate forum last fall. Every single commissioner candidate was asked: would they accept the results of the election in Chaffee County? Every one of them said they trusted the election process in Chaffee County and would accept the results. All but one said they would trust the 2020 state and national election results.
But then disinformation about the results of what wasn’t even a close election began. Then came the Jan. 6 violent insurrection by Trump supporters on the United States Capitol. In early January one county candidate, Republican Hannah Hannah, wrote that she felt that the commissioner election had been stolen from her, as well as questioning the results of the state and presidential elections.
Another man wrote a letter to a competitor news organization questioning the observation role he thought he should have had, and several recent commenters on AVV stories have continued to question election results.
So when Chaffee County Clerk and Recorder Lori Mitchell, who has just issued the 2021 coordinated election schedule, says that she will again set the record straight regarding the election process, it is time to listen.
“It isn’t like our county election system has suddenly become untrustworthy – it hasn’t,’ said Mitchell. “Last year was crazy, especially with three elections, two of which were held during a global pandemic. We had record-breaking turnout and received a lot of support throughout the county.”
“Even though it is now March, we have still been dealing with lingering or new accusations, conspiracy theories, misinformation, and lies surrounding the conduct of the November election,” said Mitchell. “I would like to address a few of these here:”
There has been an accusation that we did not seat a poll watcher from the Republican Party. The gentleman making this accusation is registered as unaffiliated and has been since May of 2018. On the top of the Certificate of Appointment and Oath of Watcher form from the Secretary of State’s (SOS) office it reads: If selected by a political party chairperson, or a party candidate, the watcher must be affiliated with that political party.
This gentleman did not appear on any list from the SOS office that alerts us he had completed the poll watcher training class from their office. We never received the appointment form.
Another accusation is that we seated more Democratic and Unaffiliated judges than Republicans. Here is the backstory. I request election judge lists from the parties. The parties send me the lists. This year because of the pandemic and many jurisdictions across the state and country being in need of election judges, the state added a button online so interested voters could volunteer to be an election judge. We also fielded a lot of calls for election judges. Here in Chaffee, we needed to double the number of judges because they worked four-hour shifts.
Here are the numbers of requests to be judges from the SOS and calls to our office:
- Those registered with the Democratic Party 72
- Those registered as Unaffiliated 25
- Those registered as Republicans 7
- Those registered as Libertarian 1
- Student judges 2
The parties provided 20 Democrats and 18 Republicans (one of which was actually unaffiliated.)
All applicants from the Secretary of State’s Office were sent an email from our office which described the commitment. We seated seven Democrats and three Unaffiliated judges from these emails. No Republican applicants responded to our email. Chief Deputy Kit Kuester then called five of the seven Republicans that we had numbers for and was only able to reach one young man from Buena Vista who expressed interest. Kit then emailed him the application and training schedule and it was never returned.
We asked the Republican leadership if they had any others for the judge list and the response was no. We then tried a final time where I said I was desperate for some Republican judges and we received a few more names. This is not normal. We have a good relationship with the leadership of both parties, and we have never not had enough Republican judges’ this was just a unicorn of a year.”
It could reasonably be asked why so few Republicans in this county failed to answer the call of duty to serve as an election judge this year? Could it be their party’s leader? Former President Trump said for months that “if I don’t win, it’s because the election was rigged.”
Mitchell said that the election judge list was not adequate, so she notified the Secretary of State’s office, “every step of the way and they advised me to move on with finalizing the list but try to have a Republican and Democrat matched up on signature verification, adjudication, and duplication, which we did.”
She added that there was a shuffle towards the end as scheduled judges were quarantined or had COVID-19 and her assistant did an amazing job managing around 50 judges. “We always followed the SOS recommendation and had a Democrat and Republican in signature verification, adjudication, and duplication.”
Michell raised one final issue regarding the accusation that she or her staff “counted ballots”.
“In Chaffee County, we don’t hand count the ballots, we have a central scanner. All the paper ballots are run through this scanner — regardless if they were ballots received as a mail ballot or were voted on the accessible machine in the vote center — they are scanned through the central scanner. This scanner does not tabulate/count the ballots. The scanner makes an image of the ballot and puts them in batches of 50 and sends that information over to the server through a closed network. There is no counting, this is a scan-only process.
The batches stack up electronically then a team of bipartisan judges adjudicates ballots where the voting system can’t determine the voter’s intent. We don’t tabulate/count the ballots until after the judges adjudicate them and it is after 7:00 p.m. on Election Day. The ballots are scanned in a room with election judges who are taking ballots out of envelopes and pre-batching them in groups of 25.”
She explained that counting judges are assigned in counties that still hand count because they are small counties, which Chaffee is not. In those cases, they assign three judges: one reads the votes of the ballot, one records the votes on a tally sheet, and the third judge observes. About every 25 ballots or so, those judges switch roles. She isn’t sure, but she thinks that by November 2020 every county in the state was using central scanning. “If that is the case I would expect the entire section on hand counting to be repealed out of the statutes if not this year then next.”
Mitchell has pointed out that as soon as election voting opens in the state, the Clerk and Recorder’s office begins issuing daily counts of the totals of those voting: Republican, Democrat, unaffiliated and minor parties. A daily list of the names of those who voted is also generated. That information is supplied daily during the election not just to the party leaders who use it to inform their get-out-the-vote-campaigns, but to the news media. (AVV can verify receiving those daily voter lists).
“No election is perfect, but I am very proud of my staff and all election judges who ran three fair, accessible, safe, secure, and transparent elections in 2020,” Mitchell said.