In Arapahoe County, multiple security levels safeguard ballots

Process overseen by bipartisan teams; voters can track ballots

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Arapahoe County’s elections director says voters can expect a safe, secure fall election, overseen by bipartisan teams.

Voters can choose to mail or drop off their ballots, or vote in person, said Peg Perl, Arapahoe County’s elections director, and can track their ballots online to make sure they’ve been received and accepted.

Arapahoe County will have 29 in-person vote centers and at least 32 ballot drop boxes for the fall election, Perl said — up from 25 drop boxes last year. Several of the in-person vote centers will be open beginning Oct. 19.

Perl described the layers of security used to ensure ballots are fairly counted and insulated against fraud.

“It would be extremely difficult to cheat in our elections,” Perl said. “There’s so much oversight. So many eyes on the entire process. So much tracking.”

A bipartisan process

Much of the process is handled by bipartisan teams of election judges, she said. Election judges are largely temporary employees who fill a variety of roles throughout the election process. Two-person teams must be composed of members of different parties, though not strictly Democrats and Republicans — unaffiliated voters, who actually represent the lion’s share of voters in the county, can make up half of a bipartisan team, as can Libertarians, Green Party members and others.

Once ballot language is finalized by the county’s numerous municipalities and overlapping entities such as school districts, county staff assemble ballot types to go to voters based on where they live.

Ballots are printed by a vendor in Washington State, and driven to Denver's central postal facility, where county staff oversee the blank ballots being mailed to voters on Oct. 9.

In Colorado, all voters automatically receive a ballot in the mail, Perl said, meaning there is no difference between mail and absentee ballots. Voter lists are kept up to date by comparing them against data from the state Department of Revenue, Department of Motor Vehicles and health department death records.

As voters begin to return their ballots, they are retrieved again by bipartisan teams. Generally no more than a fifth of all ballots cast in Arapahoe County elections are returned by mail, according to county data, with a sizable majority dropped in drop boxes.

Mailing it in

Ballots sent through the mail are retrieved from the Postal Service’s general mail facility by election judges, and subject to strict chain-of-custody procedures including carrying them in locked boxes and tamper-evident seals.

Arapahoe County elections officials work closely with the Postal Service, Perl said, adding that Denver’s mail sorting facility is working at its normal operating capacity with all sorting machines intact and functional.

Ballots dropped in drop boxes are retrieved once a day — twice a day in the final days before the election — by bipartisan teams. Ballot drop boxes are hardened against tampering, burglary and even explosives, and each one is monitored by a security camera.

Once ballots are brought to the county election facility, near Federal Boulevard and Belleview Avenue, they are scanned by an Agilis sorting machine, which scans the unique barcode on each ballot and takes a picture of the signature on the outside of the envelope.

Signatures are compared against voters’ previous ballots, and against other signatures on file with the Department of Motor Vehicles or other departments.

While the Agilis can automatically accept signatures it determines are a match, typically less than 1% of signatures are accepted this way. Most are manually inspected by election judges trained in FBI handwriting analysis. Questionable signatures are sent to bipartisan teams for review.

If the teams don’t agree the signature is a match, the envelopes are sent for “cure,” meaning the voter receives a notice that they must verify their identity with a copy of a government-issued ID. Voters with no signature on file, such as new voters, also must provide a copy of their ID.

Ballots are then opened by bipartisan teams who separate the ballot and the envelope, ensuring that voter names and how they voted are never seen at the same time.

Careful tabulation

Ballots are then taken to a locked tabulation room, where they are scanned into a computer system that has no connection to the internet. Ballots that are stained or damaged, or have stray marks, are examined by bipartisan teams before being tabulated.

Voters who choose to vote in-person must confirm their identity with a government-issued ID. Election judges ensure they have not already turned in a mail ballot. In-person voters fill out a paper ballot, unless they choose to use an electronic device that fills out a paper ballot for them.

In-person voting has accounted for a small minority of votes cast in Arapahoe County in recent elections, representing less than 10% of votes in the 2016 and 2018 general elections, and less than 1% of votes cast in the June 2020 primary.

Anyone attempting to vote first by mail or drop box, then again in person, would be flagged by the system as a double voter and potentially subject to prosecution for voter fraud. Those in doubt as to whether their mail ballot has been accepted can check through Arapahoe County’s Ballot Track system, available at ArapahoeVotes.com.

Forging ballots would be extremely difficult, bordering on impossible, Perl said, because forged ballots would require forged barcodes and signatures that would trigger alarms in both electronic and hand-verification systems.

While elections staff begin scanning votes as soon as ballots arrive, votes aren’t tallied for the first time until 7 p.m. on Election Day. Votes are counted electronically and stored on a secure server not connected to the internet. County staff then send the vote totals to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office via a secure, encrypted FTP portal.

“Cure” ballots, those that require additional verification, have until Nov. 12 to be finalized, Perl said. Finalized vote tallies aren’t due until shortly before Thanksgiving.

Keep an eye on things

Those concerned about election security can apply to become paid election judges, which can require a time commitment as short as the final few days before the election. Perl said the fall election will likely require 450 election judges, and while the office is mostly staffed up by mid-September, the county would like to ensure an adequate supply of backup judges.

Voters can also become poll watchers, who are trained to observe activity at polling centers, but are not allowed to interact with voters. Poll watchers must apply through a political party. Unaffiliated voters are generally ineligible to be poll watchers, unless they are associated with a statewide issue committee.

Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder Joan Lopez, who oversees elections — and is Perl’s boss — said voters can best ensure their ballots are counted by voting early, and can help ensure safety during the pandemic by using secure drop boxes for their ballots.

“Don’t wait until Election Day,” Lopez said. “There’s no excuse not to vote. Not in Colorado, anyway.”

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