Over this past summer, the Chaffee County Clerk and Recorders Office has had some major renovations. Chaffee County Clerk, Lori Mitchell, is working hard to create a new space for election judges and officials to carry out electoral processes all in one room. We toured it before it was entirely set up.
When entering the new and improved Chaffee County Ballot counting-room one is welcomed by a slew of lockboxes, judge stations, and technology for scanning ballots. Yes, ballots are scanned, not counted.
The space in the basement of the courthouse, which was previously two rooms, has been completely redone to allow procedures to be carried out efficiently and without upset. The space is nicknamed the “Rainbow Room,” thanks to the color-coding used to identify various stations and the tasks that take place there. The open layout enables each judge to see all of the steps in the process as they occur.
Multiple lockboxes and locking shelves sit to the left of the only door. These are the units used by transport judges.
Transport judges are the volunteers who collect ballots from drop boxes and post offices throughout the county and bring them back to Salida, which is the hub for electoral administration.
Ballots from different cities are transported separately from each other. These judges never open the boxes and place a seal over every lock that they use, as well as filling out logs that archive all of their movement while on duty.
Once the mail ballots make it back to the courthouse they are put through, as Mitchell says, “the fancy machine,” which is an AgilisDuo Mail Ballot scanning and sorting system, by Runbeck election services.
In batches of 25, ballots are put through, placed in a batch sheet, stamped with the batch number and count date. The machine scans the envelope of each ballot and the barcode that is attached to the individual voter.
The scan takes a photo of the voter’s signature, which the signature verification judges will then compare to signatures that are on file for the voter, such as the ones that appear on a driver’s license or other government-issued identification.
The Signature verification judges have gone through intense training, built up years of experience, and always have a handbook to refer to, to ensure their review is thorough.
When a signature is challenged that information is uploaded into the machine and it is noted on the batch sheet which ballot was challenged.
When this occurs the voter is alerted, a letter is sent within three days of election day, that they must cure their signature, and return their ballot to the clerk within eight days after the election. Postmarks don’t satisfy this timeline.
Ballots that aren’t challenged move on the accepted station, where a bipartisan team of judges starts deconstruction.
Despite the name, deconstruction is, simply put, doubling checking batch numbers, number of ballots in each batch, and logged discrepancies.
The judges separate the envelope from the secrecy sleeve, flatten the ballots, and monitor for foreign markings on the ballot. If such markings are found, the ballot is duplicated.
Once a batch has been gone through it is put in an envelope and initialed by officials for accountability should an error arise. After this, the ballots are ready to be scanned.
A desktop solely for the purpose of adjudication is used for ballot scanning and displaying voter information. The computer is never connected to the internet, thus the information is only accessible on this desktop.
“Anonymity is very important,” Mitchell said. “The purpose of this step is to identify votes and make sure each vote is counted. The team does not see the identity of the voter.”
Once the ballots are scanned they come out of the tabulation machine which labels the date, time, batch number, and sequence.
After the adjudication step, ballots are placed in boxes to await state audit, if called upon by the Colorado Secretary of State.
If Chaffee County were to be audited, the State would make sure that batches of ballots were correctly labeled, discrepancies were accounted for, numbers in the voting system and hand count match, and accountability was practiced.
“You can’t understand how mind-blowing the process is, and how many checks and balances there are,” Mitchell said about the election process.
Results and other statistics, such as rejected ballots and discrepancies, are stated in County and state records. Numbers are double-checked and signed off on before being official. Election staff takes an oath that the results are official, and the abstract of the results is certified. A “safe harbor date” allows time for voters who faced unexpected upset or obstacles in access to voting.
The Rainbow Room itself is behind a door with a keypad lock system and a locked door between the basement and ground floor of the courthouse.
Security cameras monitor movement in and outside of the room, and a new breaker system was installed during the summer remodel.
When anyone enters or exits, they must sign a log. All staff and elections judges go under a thorough background check, and two people are assigned to every job.
During elections, there is no cleaning allowed in the room. Only authorized personnel may enter the room, and all trash stays until the election is certified.
Voters should know that ballots cannot be printed on demand. Before the election cycle begins, a certain number of ballots are ordered, accounting for lost, rejected, or damaged ballots as well as absentee ballots for military or overseas citizens.
The ballots are printed on a special paper that is only accessible from the vendor and is designed with a certain mark to signify that it is an official ballot. Essentially copying of the ballots is impossible no matter your role in the election.
When Mitchell’s current term is up, should she choose to run again, she will not be allowed in the election room while her name is on the ballot.
“This is a profession, This isn’t political,” Mitchell said about her job. “There is no finish line for us, we are always trying to do better.”
Editor’s Note: Ark Valley Voice summer intern Maddie Porter was a Chaffee County election judge her senior year at Salida High School. Her tour of the new election management space took place just prior to her departure for college.