Mail-in elections need tweaks | AspenTimes.com

Mail-in elections need tweaks

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times

Peg McGavock counts one of the ballots submitted at the Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder's Office Tuesday.

With the 2014 general election officially in the books, the Pitkin County elections staff is now looking back at solutions to avoid the delays experienced on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning that hampered getting the results to the public in a timely manner.

Final election results were anticipated to be available by around midnight Wednesday, but a series of complications delayed those results until 2:37 a.m.

"I'm already thinking of what we can do better in the future," said Janice Vos Caudill, the clerk and recorder for Pitkin County. "We didn't have any trends or past data to predict what might happen with this mail-in election, but now we do, and we'll use that data to make the next election that much smoother."

The state of Colorado made it mandatory to offer mail-in ballots in all counties beginning in 2013.

The problems that Pitkin County experienced Tuesday were difficult to understand, as counties with larger voting populations published results earlier in the evening.

"Other counties have conducted mail-in elections since 1993 in odd years," Vos Caudill said. "Those communities are accustomed to the process, as are their election departments."

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Eagle County, which has used the mail-in ballot system for more than a decade, had 75 percent of its election totals, around 14,000 votes, posted by 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

"We still had about 2,000 ballots that needed signature verification and had to be opened, separated and scanned," said Teak Simonton, the clerk and recorder for Eagle County. "There's only so much you can do with space and scanner limitations. Ballot batches can be a long and tedious process that can take hours to process, but we had our final results posted by 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, and that's pretty good."

Simonton said the larger counties in Colorado use pretty much the same tallying processes but have more history with mail-in elections.

"Maybe more people participate in their mail-in voting because they're used to that system," she said. "But they still get people dropping off ballots on Monday and Tuesday like we did but likely not as high a percentage of voters that we experienced."

Prior to Tuesday, the Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder's Office announced that it anticipated election results would be updated at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., with final results available around midnight. Those timelines were shattered after statewide problems with the election network caused intermittent delays throughout Tuesday, a large turnout of drop-off ballots on Monday and Tuesday caused additional delays and inadequate facilities to tally the final votes slowed the counting process.

On Tuesday afternoon, Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler's office said a computer system used to verify voter eligibility was taken offline for just over five minutes because of computer problems. Spokesman Andrew Cole said the impact had been minimal. He said any precincts that had computer problems earlier in the day allowed people to fill out provisional ballots that would be counted later.

Vos Caudill said it wasn't just one short computer delay Tuesday but that instead it was a series of delays from the system going down intermittently throughout Tuesday.

"We were informed around noon on Tuesday that the statewide elections network had experienced problems beginning at 6:50 a.m.," Vos Caudill said. "Around 2 p.m., the system went down for about 20 minutes and continued to have intermittent problems where the system would cause five- to 10-minute delays."

Vos Caudill said the election judges did their best to accommodate people during the delays by offering mail-in ballots or provisional ballots to the voters who had to wait.

"We had our challenges on Tuesday," Vos Caudill said. "But give credit to our staff and election judges. They were fantastic and did their best to help the public during the delays."

Election staff didn't expect the heavy volume of drop-off ballots that occurred on Monday and Tuesday, with 47 percent of the votes coming on those last two days of the election.

"It may have been a mail-in ballot and we offered early-voting options," Vos Caudill said. "But a large majority of Pitkin County voters chose to drop off their ballots at the last minute. We didn't have the capacity to deal with that."

After the 7 p.m. voting deadline, a group of around 16 election judges began to process ballots in a 20-by-20-foot room in the basement of the Courthouse Plaza building. The judges worked in pairs with one Democratic and one Republican judge each monitoring the tallying. Before casting the ballot into an automated voting machine, the judges verified the ballot signature by matching it through a statewide signature computer program.

The county had two voting machines running at all times Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning. The election judges were finished by around 1 a.m., with election staff finishing up around 3 a.m.

"Our voting equipment is 14 years old," Vos Caudill said. "We'll be looking into updating our equipment."

Vos Caudill said she believes the mail-in ballot system and getting results tallied quicker will only get better during the next election.

"Hopefully we won't see the statewide election network go down," she said. "I'm hoping we'll have a larger facility to tally votes in, new equipment to count the ballots, and we'll be prepared for a late surge of voters."

mmclaughlin@aspentimes.com