With the majority of Colorado voters having received their ballots in the mail by now, Douglas County officials are hoping to spread one primary message: Vote early.
That's because last year, more than 60,000 votes, or 40% of all ballots cast, were received either the day of or the day before the election.
With more than 180,000 total ballots received and a processing capacity of about 25,000 ballots per day, the count took nine days. This year, Merlin Klotz, the county's clerk and recorder and the designated elections official, wants to prevent this from happening again.
“It (voting early) gets our results in earlier,” Klotz said.
About 80% of Douglas County voters prefer to vote through a ballot drop box, Klotz said. That's why the county decided to increase the number of boxes this year from nine to 17. Maps of the drop boxes and the four in-person polling locations and other voter resources are available at DouglasVotes.com.
Since Colorado changed to a mail-in, paper ballot system in 2014, the speed of the process has changed.
“They still expect 100% election results election night,” Klotz said.
While the counting can be slow, the three preliminary reports given by the county throughout the evening of election day are usually representative of the final result, Klotz said.
“Because it's randomized, the outcomes aren't going to change much,” he said.
Once the ballot is signed by the voter and dropped in a box, the easy part is finished and the complex, multi-step process of counting the ballots begins.
First, the ballots are brought into the election headquarters in Castle Rock from the various drop boxes and weighed to determine a count. Then, the envelopes are taken downstairs and run through a sorting machine, which takes photos of each ballot's signature.
Then the machine places the envelopes in different piles — such as acceptable, too thin, too thick or missing a signature. For those that are accepted, the signatures go through a program that seeks to match them with existing ones from that voter.
At this time, the machine gathers a list of voters whose ballots have been cast and marks them as received through the secretary of state's office. This prevents people from voting twice.
If a signature match is found, the sealed envelope is sent to the next stage. If not, it's sent back upstairs to be reviewed and manually matched by one of about 300 trained temporary workers who help throughout the process.
One in every 50 ballots is audited by a worker, Klotz said. If a matching signature is not found or the voter forgot to sign, notifications are sent to the voter beginning eight days after the election that they need to “cure their ballot.”
Last year, about 400 ballots needed to be cured, Klotz said. The majority were never corrected or counted because the voters failed to complete the cure.
After the ballots are opened, they go through a counting machine. If there is an issue with the paper that prevents it from being read by the machine, such as when someone appears to have changed their choice and crossed out an original selection, trained workers also review these to make determinations.
Watchers from the various campaigns can oversee these decisions along with the signature matching and make complaints if they deem it necessary.
Nearly every step of the way, there is key card security to enter each room and overhead cameras recording to ensure the integrity of the process. There is also always a mix of Democrats and Republicans handling the ballots, transporting them and making signature or vote decisions.
On election day, Klotz, who oversees the whole process, finds himself feeling somewhat like an orchestra leader, he said.
“Things are so well-planned that I'm not worrying what the first violin is doing and I'm just keeping an eye on it,” he said.
There are two main things voters can do to help this orchestra play as smoothly as possible, he said.
“Get your ballot in early,” he said. “Remember to sign it.”
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