“For us to collect this many ballots in two days is huge”
[ By Katherine Nettles ]
Voters are turning out in record early numbers across Gunnison County, with close to 3,500 ballots turned in within the first week since many people received them.
There are still almost two weeks left until Election Day, and election officials do not expect those numbers to subside. However, registered voters in the more remote areas of Gunnison County like Somerset and Marble have reported they were yet to receive their ballots in the mail 11 days after they were sent out, and a slow-down in the U.S Postal Service seems to be a concern for people.
Most voters are choosing to use ballot drop boxes, according to Gunnison County elections director Diane Folowell. The Gunnison County elections office made ballot drop boxes available beginning on October 13 and began collecting ballots from the drop boxes on Monday, October 19. There were almost 2,000 ballots dropped as of Monday.
“For us to collect that many ballots in two days is huge,” says Folowell. “We’re thrilled about that, and it’s going to enable us to provide results much faster. Everyone appears to love the drop boxes.”
By Tuesday, that number was closer to 3,000 and as of press time Wednesday, 3,400.
“We have had fewer than 200 coming from the mail service so far,” says Folowell.
“Everything is working beautifully, at this point. I think we have planned as much as we could plan and it has worked,” she continues. “We have encouraged people to use the drop boxes and they are following through. And people are participating in early voting.”
Life cycle of a ballot
Each ballot turned into Gunnison County is treated in exactly the same way by a panel of bipartisan election judges hired for this specific task. The election office allowed the Crested Butte News to witness the process briefly on Tuesday afternoon, October 20, during which time four election judges were processing ballots.
Folowell says she has hired between 35 and 45 election judges for this election. They work together each day to stay on top of the ballot count and to manage any discrepancies.
“Before we leave every day, we have to make sure all ballots that were collected that day are processed. Otherwise we will get behind and we may not be able to catch up,” says Folowell.
The judges gather in the county’s election office tabulation room. They sit at a table, this year with added Plexiglas barriers between each person, and pass around each ballot envelope. Every envelope is inspected and the signature verified. Any envelopes with signature issues are set aside and handled in a separate process, though these ballot-signature issues make up less than 3 percent of all ballots turned in.
“We’ve only pulled 38 out of almost 3,000,” says Folowell. Those are later tracked for whatever further identification or signature verification is needed so they can be counted as well.
After lunch comes disassembly. The election judges “disassemble” the envelope packages for the ballots whose signatures were accepted, discarding the outer envelope and privacy sleeve. One election judge calls out, “Another streaker!” when she finds a ballot without a privacy sleeve. However, even “streakers” are counted.
At that point, each ballot becomes completely anonymous to the judges. They pass every ballot around, inspecting it for smears, pencil marks (instead of pen) or mistakes that will be rejected by the electronic scanner. If there is any uncertainty, two sets of bipartisan judges duplicate that ballot and come to agreement about the intent of the voter.
Then they will submit what they believe was the voter’s intent, or if they cannot agree, they will reach out to the person within 24 hours to let them know their ballot has an error and needs to be resubmitted.
That voter has eight days to “cure” their ballot in order for the ballot to be counted.
“We have a great group of judges,” says Folowell. “Our mail processing judges in particular are so talented, they just make our job so easy.”
With ballot counts beginning at 5 or 6 a.m. each day, and the count expected to last until at least 1 or 2 a.m. after Election Day, not many would call it easy.
One election judge, who wished to remain unnamed, said she is happy to do it.
“I don’t think it is painful to process it all,” she says. “It is part of our civic duty—you want everyone to exercise their right to vote. I think everyone should [judge] sometime so they know how fair it really is. For me, to sit here with people who aren’t part of the same political party, working together, gives me great trust in this system.“
After each ballot has been scanned, they are kept on file with the county for 25 months. “We will keep them longer if the state is involved in a lawsuit, or anything is being contested,” says Folowell. In her 15 years of experience, though, that hasn’t been necessary.
Voter registration continues
“We never turn away a voter,” says Folowell of anyone who requests to register without proper identification or who is out of state or not in their correct jurisdiction. The policy is to offer them a chance to provide a form of identification when they turn in their ballot, or if in the wrong jurisdiction, to offer a state-wide federal ballot.
“I think that people were really registering early this year,” noted Gunnison County county clerk and recorder Kathy Simillion. She says a steady stream of online registration continues to come in.
Folowell still warns that some votes will trickle in late on Election Day, and no timeframe is guaranteed for results. “I don’t know what to expect at the end of this election. I don’t expect results that night.”
People can register to vote or change their address up until 7 p.m. on November 3, but the deadline to register online to vote is Monday, October 26. If you miss this deadline, you will not receive a ballot by mail, but you can still vote in person at a voter service and polling center.
To check your voter registration status, to register to vote or change your address, visit www.govotecolorado.gov, visit the Gunnison County elections office in the Blackstock Government Building in Gunnison or call the local election division at (970) 641-7927.