Reid Armstrong: The other side of voting
November 6, 2010
Just before midnight on Election Day, I was standing in a doorway of the Grand County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, holding up a wall. Election judges squeezed by me with locked ballot boxes as I watched with fascination the process of counting ballots unfold.
In addition to reporting on the election for this paper, I had the opportunity to be the Associated Press stringer for Grand County, which involves phoning in to a national call center with updates every hour. It’s a cool thing, to be part of contributing to those updates that scroll across the bottom of the screen on your TV election night.
I was still hours away from seeing the inside of my covers – it would be 2 a.m. before I went to bed that night.
In the decade since the Bush-Gore election debacle, the voting process in Grand County has grown into an entirely different beast, with added security and extra measures, said Clerk and Recorder Sara Rosene, who has been at the job for nearly 20 years.
The new steps are mostly for the best, she added: “The attempt is to always protect integrity and secrecy. Those are the two biggies.”
Rosene, who just won her 6th election, grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and moved to Kremmling in 1976 with her husband who worked for the BLM. She had worked as a title examiner for the bank in Kremmling before running for the clerk position in 1990. She had never been involved in an election before that and said that in the last two decades elections have become a very big part of the job.
“It was always important, but now it has become a very big piece of it,” she said.
About 70 people, in addition to staff, helped with the Nov. 2 election. Election judges track how many blank ballots they are given at the beginning of the day versus how many blank ballots and cast ballots they have when the polls close. They also cross-check signatures with how many ballots were cast.
“It’s a big commitment for them and they take it seriously,” Rosene said.
Balancing the numbers at the end of a 14-hour day can be a challenge, partly because everyone is tired.
“Trust me, it’s tough,” Rosene said.
Then, there was the one voter in Fraser that walked out of the polling place with his signature card. Election judges actually hunted him down because they knew he had voted and they couldn’t balance their books without his card.
After the polls closed, ballot boxes sealed with tamper-evident, numbered locks were driven to the county courthouse. There, the boxes were opened and ballots recounted. Judges also removed ballots that were dirty or torn.
Those that had problems were pulled out and given to a special set of four judges to duplicate. Two Republicans and two Democrats fulfill this roll. If a Democrat read the spoiled ballot, a Republican watched them do it. Then a Republican filled out the new ballot and a Democrat watched them do it. About 200 votes had to be duplicated Nov. 2, Rosene said.
For mail-in ballots, all signatures were scanned and verified using three saved signatures from prior records.
Every task, from duplicating votes to opening mail-in ballots, was done under the watchful eye of a video camera.
An election judge stood watch over the ballot scanner to make sure it didn’t pull several ballots at a time, which happened once Tuesday night. The machine was cleaned and the batch had to be rerun.
Scanned ballots with extra marks or overvotes were displayed on an overhead screen. Sometimes people write notes or circle a name to indicated the person they wanted to vote for, Rosene said. Sometimes the scanner just picks up a hesitation mark in one of the boxes. One Democrat and one Republican determined the intent behind any questionable vote.
The clerk’s staff then backed up the system and transferred the information to another computer, which generated a tally and report.
This multi-step process led to one other glitch Tuesday night. After Rosene handed me what she believed to be the final tally, she realized that she had forgotten the batch with the 600-some votes from people who dropped off their mail-in ballots early.
With several close elections – both on a national and local stage – the results of that last batch may have sealed the fate for several people and several local measures.
Given the complexity of the process and the late hours, it’s remarkable everything ran as smoothly as it did. I have huge respect for the election officials and all they do. Next time, however, I’m going to bring more coffee.
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