Colorado has a shining reputation when it comes to election security, but given recent headlines regarding a malfunctioning app that delayed the results of the Democratic caucuses in Iowa — and of course, the specter of foreign interference in presidential elections — voters justifiably want assurance that votes cast in this year’s three major elections (the March 3 presidential primaries, June 30 non-presidential primaries and Nov. 3 general election) will count.
The Business Journal talked with El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Chuck Broerman about what the county’s doing to make sure no one messes with this year’s elections.
Right now, where does the state stand and where does the county stand as far as election security?
Colorado, and El Paso County, is one of the safest, most secure places for citizens to vote. … There’s several components of security. There’s the physical security, the cybersecurity, and then, as we’re increasingly learning, it’s the public relations or information side of the equation.
So, first of all, the physical security: making sure that every step of the way — from the time that you receive the ballot language from the various jurisdictions … from the designing of the ballot, the proofing of the ballot, to the printing of the ballot, everyone has background checks. … Our election area is secured. We have keywords that you’ve got to use to get into the area. We have two-factor encryption every step of the way. We have a Democrat and a Republican in every step, so that adds transparency. … So we have layers and layers of physical security. And then we have the cybersecurity and the information side of the equation.
As far as cybersecurity, are there issues that you’re hoping to address proactively?
Cybersecurity is making sure … you don’t have a connection to the outside world. So we have a room [where] the server that is linked to the tabulation machines is a local network. It doesn’t go outside to the worldwide web. … So there’s no way for any foreign actors or anything, anybody that means us harm, to get inside that, because we’ve got the cameras, we control the access going in and out.
… The other key to all this is in Colorado, we vote by paper, so we can always go back to the piece of paper to verify our equipment. Before we start tabulating ballots — and we did this last week — we did the logic and accuracy test of our equipment that makes sure we test the machine [for] every possible combination of votes. … At the end of the process, we have what’s called a risk-limiting audit. And again, we’re testing the equipment, and this risk-limiting audit is the most robust standard in the country. … We can compare the physical ballot to what the machine read and show that comparison and validate what actually happened.
… It takes a lot of resources to try and hack something. And in Colorado and in the United States, every county does their elections a little different. And because we all do it a little different, it’s hard to use one type of system to hack the 64 counties in Colorado or the 3,000 counties across the country. So we’re kind of decentralized, and that creates a layer of security.
But what we’re finding is, that’s helped prevent cybersecurity [breaches], but what doesn’t cost a lot of money is trying to erode the confidence in our citizens, our voters, that we can’t trust our machines, we can’t trust our processes. … There’s going to be people who will post things on Facebook, on Twitter, and try and create doubt in a person’s mind: ‘Hey, don’t bother voting because it’s already been rigged.’
So [those are] the things that we have to combat as elected officials and communications experts, to help get the correct information out there, to beat back the bad information so people can maintain that confidence in our system.
Are there additional layers of security that we’re looking toward for the future?
Well, there is talk about using blockchain, you know, various different types of encryption. I will tell you, back in 2016, people were starting to say, ‘Well, why can’t we vote on our smartphone or our devices?’ … I’m starting to see it again: ‘Why can’t we vote electronically?’
You saw [what happened] in Iowa last week, right? What happened when they tried to use an app that wasn’t thoroughly tested. Now, there’s a bunch of doubt about the results. …
At the end of the day, a piece of paper that we can go back to … and trace our vote — we may have a machine, a scanner that counts the votes — but we can go back to this base piece of paper, this document, and verify that what we did was correct.
Colorado scores pretty high on the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity index. How does the perception of secure elections help to ensure high voter turnout?
I think when you’re secure, people have confidence that their voices are heard. We, as election officials, county clerks, we are your megaphone. We’re your amplifier to our government.
That’s what elections are: The indication … from our citizens [of] the direction that we want our country to go. And election officials, county clerks, are that megaphone for those citizens.
Especially since it’s a presidential election year, there’s probably a lot of logistics that go into this. What does your workforce look like?
I think for a lot of citizens, they think, ‘How hard can elections be?’ You print up some ballots, you mail them, and then you send them back and we count them. In reality, it’s hundreds and thousands of steps in a process.
… Elections are usually planned eight, nine, 10 months in advance, and this year, we have three elections. We have the presidential primary in March. We have the party political primary in June, and then we have the granddaddy of them all, the presidential and general election in November. So we’re real busy in El Paso County.
We’re very fiscally conservative. I have [a full-time] election staff of 11. Contrast that with my counterpart in Denver: same number of [citizens], they have 26 [staff members]. We do the same amount of stuff. We’re more frugal.
… We have 42 people that are training [Feb. 13 and 14] as election judges. In this presidential primary, we’ll have about 250 people that will work as election judges at our 11 vote centers. Similar number in June for the party political primary.
In the November election, we’ll swell up to about 600 people. These are all people that are working from a couple of days to a couple of weeks.
It’s the first time unaffiliated voters can vote in the presidential primary. Does that make it kind of a crazy time?
It’s a busy year anyways with a primary, a party primary and a presidential election, but yeah, it adds to the tempo. It’s more busy.
I like to tell people elections [are] a lot like exercising a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. And I look at elections as an opportunity to get a little bit better, to refine our craft, to do a better job for ourselves.
Are there any other challenges with having to also tally the primary votes from independent voters?
The challenge … is educating voters: ‘Well, Clerk Broerman, you sent me two ballots. I must be able to vote two ballots, right?’
No, you can’t. … If you return both, you cancel out your vote. Your voice won’t be heard. … So there’s extra processing to ensure that only one ballot is counted. … And we’re going to get a little better every cycle.
Since the June 2018 non-presidential primary was the first election where unaffiliated voters could participate, did you see a lot of people who returned both?
It varied throughout the state from about [1 percent of voters who returned both] to, I saw some places that had [8 percent or more]. We were around 6 percent [in El Paso County], even though we spent a lot of time on radio and TV letting folks know, and we had listed in our information packets — five different places it said ‘only vote one’ — we still had people that voted two [ballots]. We came up with [a new ballot insert] that we hope helps a little more.
El Paso County is considered pretty red, but since the state is considered kind of a purple state, does that change things security-wise at all, as far as people wanting more oversight?
There’s a lot of oversight at our polling locations. Observers can come in, poll watchers can be there every step of the way. We’re transparent. … We as clerks are working with each other, clerks are working with the secretary of state and our legislature, and we’re working with the political parties and citizens and interest groups. We meet with the political parties one or more times a year to bring them up to speed, and they share their concerns. So there’s a lot of participation, and that gives people an opportunity to be heard, and to view the process.
How do election security bills and measures that are passed at the federal level impact us at the local level, whether or not they involve funding?
Well, that is a big challenge both at the federal and state level when it comes to elections. …Often these are unfunded mandates. So the burden falls on local communities and counties to fund those efforts. … We do a great job. We could do a little bit better with additional funds.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I just encourage citizens to become well-informed and to vote early. And as soon as they’ve made up their mind — I’m not trying to rush them — but to vote early. …Waiting until the last day, we incur a lot of additional overtime costs, and also it delays results. And when the results are delayed, the longer they go, it starts to erode the confidence of the public.
… When I first started a number of years ago [in 2014], we had five [ballot drop boxes]. Now we have 35. We had 21 vote centers… . We will in this next election in November have 32. We’ve added 75,000 people since I became clerk to the voter registration rolls, so we’re engaging more, and more people are participating.
You know, I hear stories about voter suppression. Well, I can tell you: Doesn’t happen in Colorado, doesn’t happen in Colorado Springs. Once again, we make it the easiest place to vote, but the hardest place to cheat.