By Rick Gustafson
Special to Colorado Community Media
The work taking place in the second-floor conference room of the Elbert County Courthouse began weeks before Nov. 4, and on Election Day, the unremitting activity, punctuated by the intermittent hum of the ballot-counting machine, could be described as methodical rather than chaotic.
In the doorway, a line of three or four voters stood waiting for an available election volunteer to register them to vote and supply them with their choice of either a paper ballot or the use of one of two voting machines.
Behind the table of election volunteers and a blockade of chairs, tagged with sheets of paper declaring in bold black ink “Election Officials Only Past this Point,” an assembly line of volunteers moved ballots through the counting process.
Orchestrating the plan, setup and execution for Election Day 2014 was the responsibility of Elbert County Clerk and Recorder Dallas Schroeder.
“We started counting on Oct. 21, one day after voters could drop off their ballots,” said Schroeder. “Every ballot is counted in this room.”
From the public’s side of the barricade, Schroeder described the election process.
For the 2014 midterm election, every registered voter in Colorado received a mail-in ballot. In Elbert County, that equated to 18,720 ballots. Voters had the option of either mailing their ballot or dropping it off at one of several locations throughout the county, including a drop box adjacent to the 24-hour customer service counter in the Elizabeth Walmart.
“It worked out great. We had over 2,000 ballots dropped off at Walmart,” said Schroeder.
Ballots are brought to the courthouse on Comanche Street and the counting process begins by scanning the bar code on the ballot’s envelope. The code identifies voters and records the receipt of their ballot. The envelopes are then bundled into batches of 25 along with a tracking sheet that follows the batch along the assembly line of election volunteers.
At the first station of the assembly line, a pair of election volunteers, one Democrat, one Republican, tears off the portion of the envelope’s flap covering the signature block. Together they verify the signature on each envelope.
“We don’t see a lot of signature problems, maybe 30 this year,” Schroeder said. “Most (signature discrepancies) are unsigned.”
Voters who fail to sign their envelopes are sent a letter and have until Nov. 12 to confirm their signature or their vote is not counted. Ballots with signature discrepancies are set aside and the new batch total is recorded on the tracking sheet.
During the next stage of the counting process, a second bipartisan pair of volunteers removes the ballots from the envelope. Schroeder pointed out that the volunteers follow a specific procedure to ensure voter anonymity. The envelopes are opened and the security sleeve concealing the ballot is removed. The ballots are only removed from the security sleeve after the entire batch has been opened.
The number of ballots is then compared to the number recorded on the tracking sheet. The tracking sheet, the envelopes, security sleeves, and the ballot are banded together and moved along to the final station for counting.
The last pair of election volunteers once again checks the number of ballots against the tracking sheet and runs the ballots through an Insight brand voting machine that counts and records the votes on an internal cartridge. The Insight automatically rejects miscast votes, such as two votes for one office, but a miscast vote in one race does not disqualify the entire ballot, only the vote for that race.
When a batch is complete the machine prints out a thermal receipt, similar to the one printed by a gas pump, with the vote tally for that batch. The signed envelopes, ballots, tracking sheet, and tally receipts are kept for 25 months following an election. The security sleeves are set aside for reuse.
“In previous years we printed election-specific instructions on the security sleeves,” Schroeder noted. “This year we used generic sleeves, so they can be reused.”
When the polls closed at 7 p.m., Schroeder began transferring the counts recorded on the Insight’s cartridges to a USB drive, and by 7:20 p.m., the tally was uploaded to the Colorado secretary of state’s election website.
Schroeder estimated that the initial report included approximately 80 percent to 85 percent of the total votes cast. An update was sent at around 8 p.m.
“I did the final upload before going home at about 11,” Schroder said.
Schroeder’s work was far from finished at the end of Election Day. The tally does not become official until a canvass board tests the machines and certifies the result, which usually occurs in the days immediately following an election. The two-member canvass board for Elbert County is made up of Jill Duval, Democratic chair, and Nancy Harris, treasurer for the Elbert County Republicans.
“In order to maintain voter anonymity, we usually hold back a couple of batches for the canvass board to run along with the returned signature discrepancies to test the machine,” Schroeder said. “The process takes about four hours, but they (the canvass board) can test all 12,000 (ballots) if they want to.”
Schroeder will submit the final certified count to the Colorado secretary of state.