The last week leading up to an election is usually busy for County Clerks, but Adams County workers know they have another job – hosting tours for people curious about how ballots are processed and votes tallied.
“I think voter education is the most important piece of this for many individuals who don’t know the process,” said Jamie Martinez, Adams County deputy director of elections. “I’m happy to do these tours. I do them every single election the week before Election Day.”
Adams County typically opens the doors for public scrutiny for the week before the election, offering a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes to groups of 15, one tour per day. The last tour of 2023 was scheduled for Nov. 3, the Friday before Election night on Nov. 7.
“We do them in the afternoon so that you can see most of the process coming through because our ballots are returned at that point,” Martinez said. “The individuals that go on our tour, they are the advocates out there, or they might come to work our election and are still advocates.”
Look, but don’t touch
Martinez usually starts the tours outside the county’s server room, where the ballots are made and will eventually be counted.
People on the tours are welcome to look at it, but only from the outside. Access is extremely limited to only a few members of staff. Even Clerk and Recorder Josh Zygielbaum isn’t allowed in, Martinez said.
“Nobody else has access to this room, not even the cleaning folks can go in there to clean- so it gets a little dusty between elections,” Martinez said.
Martinez said the county only lets four individuals have access to the server room. While remote cameras monitor all of the election rooms, the server room works are constantly watched by two cameras.
The room itself is physically isolated, too, protected by bullet-proof glass and tall walls.
“The walls go all the way up into the ceiling of this building so if you tried to get through my ceilings and drop down, you couldn’t do it in this room,” Martinez said.
But physical distance is just one part of the equation. The server room is also isolated from the rest of the operation electronically, operating on its own computer network. Zygielbaum said all of that equipment is kept from the outside world.
“There is an internal network so that all the computers and machines can talk to each other,” he said. “But nothing is connected to the outside world.”
Zygielbaum said the system relies on a single laptop to communicate with the Colorado Secretary of State. It’s oversized and doesn’t have access to any other computer programs or websites or anything like that. Its only job is to collect the election data. Staff must transfer that data on a single-use thumb drive and walk it out of the room.
“It is the only place that can get to the outside world to communicate results from the internal system to the external system,” Zygielbaum said. “We use a secured thumb drive that never gets reinserted.”
Picking up ballots
Teams of three, all members of different parties, make their way around the county, collecting the ballots from the collection boxes and voter information sites. Two people collect the ballots while the third stays on the lookout to make sure everyone is safe.
All the teams wear vests that identify them as county workers, storing the bags in military-grade containers. They carry 300 ballots in each container, signing documents to show the chain of custody.
“They need to note when they don’t have custody anymore,” she said. “When I unseal it, I notate the date and the time, as well as with signatures.”
The bags are brought into the election office and put in colored coded trays to identify where they came from and whether they came from the post office or the city ballot collection box.
Ballots are machine scanned one-by-one, to verify the voters’ signatures and to weed out anomalies, alerting election officials of potential red flags. That could include missing or non-matching signatures or a ballot envelope that is unusually thick or heavy – meaning they might contain something other than a ballot.
“We ensure the one ballot is in the envelope,” Martinez said. “The machine does not tally votes or remove any ballots from envelopes. It just does sorting work, taking that job out of the hands of elections workers,” Martinez said.
When the machines scan the signature, it compares it to previous signatures and those in county records. Problem ballots are isolated and set aside while the ones without problems are processed.
Bipartisan teams of two – usually a Republican and a Democrat – sit next to each other to review questionable signatures, rejecting those that clearly don’t match.
Voters are sent cure letters if there’s a problem with the signatures while the envelopes are set aside.
“If they don’t return the cure letter to us, we then turn it over to the district attorney to investigate,” Zygielbaum said.
Ballots with valid signatures are opened by a machine that slices the tops off of 3,600 envelopes per hour. Bipartisan teams of two sit at a table, removing one ballot at a time and placing them face down in line for scanning.
In the final phase, the ballots are run through a counting system with a high-speed digital scanner that can process 75 ballots per minute, taking a digital image of the fronts and backs.
Processing work begins well before the election night, with workers scanning as many ballots as they have, sending voters notifications that their ballots have been processed. But the votes are counted right away, not until the polls close.
“We wait to push the button to release results until election night,” Martinez said.
Martinez said they have had zero attempted fraud in Adams County.
“We only tally the vote if we can confirm that the individual is the one that sent it to us, “Martinez said.
Tisha Gorney brought her two children to the ballot tour on Oct. 31. She wants her kids to be familiar with the vote-counting process.
“When we go vote, they go with us. That way they can see the process and one day, hopefully, do the same thing,” Gorney said