The Life Cycle of a Ballot:
The Safe and Secure Journey Your Ballot Takes From Printing, to Voting, to Counting
The process below describes the steps taken to process ballots and protect the integrity of the vote in Denver — but similar processes are also used for mail ballots in many other states. Resources to process ballots, such as personnel and computers will vary from location to location, as will the volume of turnout, the number of early votes, and whether early votes can be pre-processed or not, helping to explain why timelines for counting ballots will vary across the country. More than 477,000 ballots were mailed to Denver voters ahead of the 2020 election. From printing to counting, to auditing, ballots are secured through a rigorous, transparent process during their entire life cycle. There is no evidence that mail ballots are more subject to fraud than other methods of voting. Voting by mail is a solution that addresses many of the threats to our democracy, from the pandemic to foreign interference.
Ballot production includes both the printing of ballots and the insertion of those ballots into mail ballot packets. Ballots are printed using strict requirements from the Elections Division, and only certain certified printers are able to produce ballots in Denver.
Once printed, ballots are inserted into a generic ballot packet, then the individual voter’s name and barcode are imprinted onto the outside envelope. This process is complex and requires precise use of computer generated databases and insertion machinery, as every voter must be sent a ballot that corresponds to what they specifically are asked to vote on. Ballots are then packaged in trays and on pallets, and weighed by USPS representatives on location at the printer. The ballots are then transferred in secured trucks to the General Mail Facility in Denver. Once the ballot shipment arrives, the postal inspector and representatives from the Denver Elections Division are present to inspect the shipment to ensure the correct quantity. The mail ballots are scanned into the post office’s mail tracking system and sorted into routes for delivery to Denver voters.
Ballots are automatically sent to all voters designated by Colorado election law as “active” voters.
Voted mail ballots are delivered to the Denver Elections Division by USPS and by Elections Division staff from drop boxes located throughout the City. All voted ballots are collected and transported to Denver elections by a bi-partisan security team. The boxes that transport ballots are secured with padlocks and numeric seals on both ends which correlate with seal logs that are kept that verify the chain of custody of ballots. Transport boxes are then placed on a scale to measure the piece count of each box and a judge reconciles the seal logs prior to unlocking the box and breaking the seals. Ballots are then assembled to prepare for signature verification.
Voters must sign the affidavit found on their ballot. Every signature on every mail ballot is verified by machines and a bi-partisan team before the ballot is counted. Signature verification training is provided by the Colorado Secretary of State and forensic handwriting analysts. Signatures are scanned and saved by a machine and sent to verification teams. If the verification team does not judge the signature as valid on the first pass, it is sent to a bipartisan team for review. If the signature does not match the signature on file with the state, the voter is sent a notification with instructions on how to fix it. The voter has eight days after the election to cure their ballot. Ballot envelopes without an acceptable signature will not be allowed to leave the signature verification area, and the District Attorney investigates ballots that are not cured.
Ballot Preparation and Counting
Approved ballots are then transported by bipartisan teams under 24/7 video surveillance. Ballot envelopes are still sealed when they enter the ballot preparation room. Ballot batches are checked in and noted on security logs. Then, they are processed through extractors with the return address facing away from the operator. The voted ballots and envelopes with any identifying information are separated and never meet again, preserving voter anonymity. However, envelopes are part of the voter record and have the same retention schedule as the ballots themselves. They are batched and stored.
Before ballots are counted, they are imprinted with a unique identifier that is used in the post election risk limiting audit (explained later). Ballots are batched and sealed in transfer cases with a security seal that includes the date, time, number of ballots, and the initials of the election judges. This ensures a secure chain of custody and that no tampering can take place. Ballots are run through the scanners that count votes, but election judges cannot see the voting results, only the number of ballots that have been scanned. Ballots marked with inconsistent instructions are sent to a bipartisan team for adjudication. Bipartisan teams must agree what the voter intent was, and they use the Colorado Secretary of State’s voter intent guide to help them reach a decision. Ballots that are ruined must be duplicated by a bipartisan team, logged for tracing purposes, and sent back through the entire counting process. Ballots may be counted prior to election day, but results are not analyzed until 7 p.m. on election night. In some places around the country, election offices are not even able to begin counting ballots until after the polls close.
Initial results are reported at 7 p.m. on election night and every 1.5 hours after; however, scanning usually takes a few days after election day to be completed. Monitor Denver’s ballot result data here. Results remain unofficial until the risk limiting audit is completed (within 3 weeks of election day).
The risk limiting audit is a bipartisan effort. The audit uses statistical analysis to allow officials to review a portion of all ballots cast in an election — this is required for all Colorado elections. During the audit, ballots are organized so any one ballot can be located and checked. As the audit proceeds and election results compared with the audit results, there is a 95% likelihood of catching problems with the election results. However, any discrepancies found can trigger additional audits up to a full hand recount.
You can track your ballot throughout. Get notifications via email or text about when your ballot has been received for counting, and when it has been accepted.
Denver Elections is also live streaming the entire ballot process, check it out here.
For Spanish-speaking voters, the Denver elections website and content is translated into Spanish. Also, the state’s blue book is translated into Spanish, so is Denver’s local issue voter guide.
If you do vote in person, please be prepared for delays due to increased sanitation procedures and physical distancing due to COVID-19.
Find anything else you need regarding Denver Elections at DenverVotes.org/VoterInfo
However you choose to vote, be sure to return your ballot before November 3 at 7 p.m.