Routt County must copy mailed ballots after error
Steamboat Springs — A coding error in the Routt County Clerk and Recorder’s Office means the 5,773 ballots mailed to voters before Tuesday will not be recognized by election databases and will have to be replicated by election judges who will work in teams of four under video camera surveillance.
Clerk and Recorder Kay Weinland said during a Wednesday news conference that she and her staff realized the problem Oct. 13 and spent the rest of the week working with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office to try to find a solution.
Weinland said the mistake was caused by an “inadvertent keystroke” and could cost the county as much as $25,000.
The security of election database encryption meant no solution could be found, despite efforts by county and state election staff.
“We didn’t know until Monday afternoon that we didn’t have a solution,” Weinland said.
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The 5,773 ballots mailed to all voters who had requested mail-in ballots no longer will be recognized by the election database.
Every completed ballot already mailed back to the county — about 500, Weinland said — will be counted for the election. But they will be copied onto a new ballot first.
Those who have received a mailed ballot but have not returned it have several options:
■ They can fill out that ballot, return it and have it replicated by election judges.
■ Through Oct. 29, they can return that ballot and vote electronically at the Routt County Courthouse Annex, where early voting is under way, or they can vote with a replacement ballot.
■ On Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, which is Election Day, they can return their original ballot and vote with a replacement ballot at the Routt County Clerk and Recorder’s Office in the Routt County Courthouse.
■ On Election Day, voters who received a mail-in ballot but did not return it can vote with a provisional ballot at their polling place.
Weinland attributed the error to her office.
She said in the process of changing the PIN, or access code, to the election database — which stores voter registration data used to process ballots and ensure security — a number on a computer screen mistakenly was changed. The number was a single digit that was not part of the PIN and appeared before the encryption code that allows access to the database.
A Colorado Secretary of State’s rule requires changing the PIN before each election.
When that single digit was changed, Weinland said, it triggered the computer to generate a new, random encryption code that was different from the code already matched to ballots issued in Routt County. That, in turn, triggered an automatic recoding on “eSlate cryptographic modules,” which are security keys — about the size of a small, portable flash drive — that enable access to the election database.
“It was just an inadvertent slip of a keystroke,” Weinland said about the mistake. “We will put additional steps in our procedure to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
Colorado Secretary of State Bernie Buescher participated in Wednesday’s news conference via telephone. He noted that ballots are replicated in every election, when judges receive ballots that are damaged, for example, and said that a process already is in place for ballot replication.
“We’ve had a number of occasions on which replications have been done on this scale,” Buescher said. “I’m confident that the integrity of the election will be absolutely protected.”
He could not, though, immediately give an example of a replication process of the size facing Routt County.
Buescher said there would be no punitive action from his office related to the mistake.
“I’m pleased with the cooperative work between my office and Routt County,” Buescher said. “I would commend Clerk Weinland and her staff on the work they put in to make sure this will be conducted with absolute integrity.”
The replication process is scheduled to begin Friday in Routt County Courthouse conference rooms.
Bipartisan teams of four election judges each will review ballots, one at a time. The reader of the old ballot and the marker of the new ballot will have their work checked by another judge.
They’ll replicate ballots in batches of 25. After 100 ballots are replicated, five of them will be pulled from the stack and audited. If any error is found in those five, the entire stack of 100 will be redone.
The process will be recorded on video camera.
“Both parties can and will have poll watchers during the poll process,” said Catherine Carson, chairwoman of the Routt County Democratic Party.
Jack Taylor, chairman of the Routt County Republican Party, also was present at Wednesday morning’s news conference.
“We estimate that if all the ballots come back … it could take as long as 500 hours,” Weinland said about the replication process.
She said the extra labor, plus the reprinting of ballots, could run the tab into “the neighborhood of $25,000.”
Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said those funds likely would come out of the county’s general fund reserves, in the form of a supplemental budget request.
Weinland said elections of this size typically cost the county $60,000 to $80,000.
She and commissioners expressed concern about a potential flood of voters turning in original ballots for replication close to Election Day.
“If they’re going to vote with their original ballot, it would help if they were returned sooner rather than later,” Stahoviak said.
Weinland noted that the county’s inability to fix the mistake is, in many ways, a testament to the strength of the election database security system.
“The security works,” she said.
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