JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. (KDVR) — FOX31 is your local election headquarters, and now that your ballot is likely in your mailbox or on its way, how can you ensure your ballot is safe on its way back to the election office to be counted?
The Problem Solvers got an exclusive inside look at the security measures one metro area’s election office is taking.
Once you drop your ballot into one of the ballot drop boxes, what happens to it? Is your ballot secure? How do you know?
The Problem Solvers took a tour of the Jefferson County Elections Office with Clerk and Recorder George Stern about the journey your ballot takes from when you cast your vote to when it’s actually counted.
Stern said the county hires 700 temporary employees who undergo CBI background checks to make it happen. Every step of the way, elections judges are working in teams of two, one Republican and one Democrat.
“This is Republicans running our elections right next to Democrats. It’s the processing of the ballots. I don’t touch ballots, the full-time staff isn’t doing it,” said Stern. “It’s your neighbors, it’s people you run into at the grocery store, at daycare pickup, at church who are actually processing these ballots and they’re doing it together with people of different political persuasions so that everyone can feel good about our elections.”
In Jefferson County alone, there are 36 drop boxes throughout the county. Almost 90% of Jeffco voters use the drop boxes to vote. Stern said a very small percentage use the actual mail and about 5% actually vote in person. All drop boxes are open 24/7 and they’re all on 24/7 surveillance.
Journey of your ballot after the ballot box
Secure transport bag
After the ballots are sent out, election offices can begin gathering and counting the votes.
A team of bipartisan election judges open up the ballot drop box and put all the ballots in a secure transport bag.
“While they’re on camera at the drop box, these judges are opening the box, they’re putting [ballots] in a secure transport bag, and then they’re putting a seal on it while they’re there in front of that dropbox so that we see them sealing it up and then putting it in their car. They’re transporting it back to our secure facility, and the seal on that bag is never broken until they’re here in our ballot processing area,” said Stern.
The ballots are taken back to Jeffco’s secure facility in an underground basement.
“You have to badge in onto this floor which is in an underground basement in our secure facility here. You then had to badge into the room itself. You’re on 24/7 surveillance the minute you step foot onto this floor. Even when we’re holding those ballots, we don’t just leave them out in this room, we put them in a secure cage behind lock and key,” Stern said.
The first stop is the processing room.
Then the envelopes go through the sorting machine, twice. The first time the machine is taking a picture of the signature on the outside of the envelope.
“The first time it goes through, the only thing that’s happening is a camera is taking a picture of the ballot envelope signature area to get a picture of that signature that is going to be compared to the signature we have on file for the voter by bipartisan election judges,” said Stern.
The machine can process 50,000 ballots per hour.
“It’s a very fast camera going tick, tick, tick, tick taking those pictures as it goes through,” Stern said.
In a separate room, more teams of bipartisan election judges are verifying signatures.
This group has been trained by FBI signature experts.
“Judges go through rigorous training, including training from an FBI handwriting expert who teaches them how to actually identify good signatures from fraudulent signatures,” Stern said. “You’re looking at the curvature of the letters, you’re looking at the slant of letters, the spacing of the letters, they’re trained to identify those things that actually show whether signatures match or not. Those election judges who have gone through this rigorous training, we test them, we audit them every day to make sure that they’re staying on par with their other judges.”
Once the signature is verified, the envelopes take their second trip through the sorter. Those approved are sliced open, and those not approved are set aside.
If your signature is not approved, voters will be notified by email or mail and have eight days after Election Day to verify your identity and correct the issues in order for your vote to be counted.
Ballot readability check
This step ensures the counting machines will be able to read the ballot as is and that there is no identifying information on the ballots.
“Once your signatures are good, we’re going to take that ballot out of the envelope. We don’t want to know who you are anymore because we don’t want to be able to associate how someone voted with who that person was,” Stern said.
In this room, there is a team of bipartisan election judges at each table. The ballots are removed from the envelopes with the name facing down to ensure voter anonymity.
“One [election judge] is actually removing the ballot from the envelope with the envelope facedown, so they cannot see the name of this person or the address of this person. Even if they did catch a glimpse of it, they’re not looking at that ballot they’re passing that ballot to a different person across the table who is then looking at that ballot,” said Stern. “So they have no way of knowing when they look at that ballot who was voting. So, it’s a completely anonymous process.”
That second person is making sure voters have filled in the bubbles in a way that the scanners can read it and that there are no stains or tears obscuring each vote.
Counting & Tabulation
Finally, it’s time for your ballot to actually be counted. The previous steps have outlined the physical security of ballots in the counting room. There are also a lot of cyber security measures in place.
“It’s certainly the most secure room in our elections process,” Stern said.
The ballot tabulation room is so exclusive, only four people have badge access to it and it’s under 24/7 surveillance.
“It’s the senior election staff members. No person would ever be in here alone,” Stern said.
The ballots go through a scanner, similar to a multiple-choice test reader, which sends the results to a central computer to be tabulated.
“[There are] eight different stations where there are scanners hooked up to computers. Those computers are never connected to the internet. Never, never, never,” said Stern. “That count is what’s then coming through a closed network to a central computer right here that’s then actually tabulating those votes. Those votes are that tabulation is not available until 7 p.m. on election night when we click the tabulate button and print out results for all to see.”
After all of that, paper ballots are stored under lock and key for two years in case someone wants to audit the results or do their own count.
Stern is so confident in the process, he said it would take an elaborate plot to breach it.
“So even if your amazing ‘Ocean’s 11’ team somehow got past our badge access into our 24/7 surveillance with our election judges and our election watchers, [if they] got into this room, somehow logged on to these computers that you need two-factor authentication for and were able to change things, they would have had to do that after the election testing but before we start counting ballots. Then they’d have to break back in and undo it before we audit everything so that they covered their tracks. It’s impossible,” Stern said.
To learn more about becoming an election judge, visit the county’s website.