Tour offers glimpse behind the ballots

It takes technology and people to settle an election quickly, clerks say

Posted 11/2/18

Realistically, Deputy Adams County Clerk Cristi Coburn said her staff and their judges will process and count close to 170,000 ballots when the polls close Tuesday, Nov. 6. It won't be a record — …

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Tour offers glimpse behind the ballots

It takes technology and people to settle an election quickly, clerks say

Posted

Realistically, Deputy Adams County Clerk Cristi Coburn said her staff and their judges will process and count close to 170,000 ballots when the polls close Tuesday, Nov. 6.

It won't be a record — Adams County voters cast close to 200,000 ballots for the 2016 presidential contest — but it's still quite a lot.

“So you can see, there's no way we could do it without a lot of technology and an awful lot of help,” Coburn said.

Coburn and her staff led 25 county residents on a tour of the Brighton operation Nov. 1 so they could see the technology and security meant to make sure every ballot gets counted quickly and honestly.

“It's just part of transparency,” County Clerk Stan Martin said. “This is pretty exciting stuff for us, so any time we can increase interest from our citizens and voters it makes it easier for us.”

Martin, who is seeking another term as the clerk on the ballot, stopped short of the tour. As a candidate, he's not allowed into the counting area, he said. He left the tour group at the entrance, meeting them back outside when their visit was over.

Colored lanyards

In all, Coburn said the office has 120 people on staff. That's bolstered by close to 300 election judges in the run-up to the election, always in bipartisan pairs. Each judge wears an identification card attached to a colored lanyard — blue for Democrats, red for Republicans, green for unaffiliated voters and purple for third party judges — including the Constitutional and Greens.

Coburn said the clerks' office sends out bipartisan teams of judges to collect ballots from the 22 collection boxes around Adams County. They go once or twice each day when the voting begins, but more frequently as Nov. 6 approaches. She expected they'd be stopping at the boxes every few hours on Nov. 6.

“They always go out in pairs, bipartisan teams, two people with different colored lanyards at all times,” Coburn said.

Ballots are loaded into special bags and sealed with a plastic lock and their pick-up location is noted. When their route is finished, each teams returns their bags to the county for processing. Each team has a certain number of bags when they start their route and they must account for each bag as it comes in.

Another election judge empties the bags, weighs them and send them through a sorting machine that captures an image from the front of the ballot envelope that shows both the barcode that identifies each voter and their signature at the bottom. The ballots are stored while the current ballots' signatures are compared to their voter registration forms. About half of the signatures are identified by computer, while digital images of the rest are sent to another group of judges for closer inspection.

The ballots, still in their envelopes, are sent through the sorting machine again but this time they are sent to different stacks depending on whether their signature was acceptable or not. Voters are contacted by phone, email and postal mail if there's problem with their signature and voters have until eight days after the election to get the problem fixed and their ballots counted.

Ballots with good signatures are sent on to a large room full of judges. Some sit at large machine that slices the envelopes open with a puff of air so the judge can remove the ballots in their security sleeve and send them along their way.

Another group removes the ballots from their sleeves and stacks them for sorting. They'll be feed into a scanner and counted by computer. Ballots that have been marked incorrectly — the voter filled out two bubbles accidentally, for example — are reviewed by another set of judges.

No internet

They'll continue being scanned and stored by a computer on a county server. Coburn said the computers can't begin counting until the polls close at 7 p.m. Nov. 6. Then, it's just a push of a button.

“According to our schedule this year, I think we'll update the counts three times before 10 p.m.,” Coburn said.

That server is isolated, and not connected to the Internet at all. To publish results, Coburn said she must plug a special encrypted USB thumb drive into the ballot computer and then take that file to an Internet-connected computer in another part of the building.

“If someone wanted to hack into our system, they couldn't,” Coburn said. “We're just not connected, and only three people in our department have a key to this room.”

In all, it's a busy, security-conscious operation. Cameras keep watch over every step of the operation and the recordings are saved for 25 months, in case a concern pops up.

Staff and judges keep a sharp eye out for the unfamiliar and for anyone not wearing the proper lanyard. Her staff flanked the tour group Thursday, making sure nobody strayed, touched anything they shouldn't or took pictures where they weren't supposed to.

“This is confidential stuff, things like dates of birth, signatures and sometimes drivers' licenses,” Coburn said. “This is a secure area and we're happy to answer questions and show people what we do, but we need to protect privacy."

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