With a roll of a ten-sided die, a complex exercise in ballot integrity begins in Colorado
On July 10, 2020, at 9 a.m., a second-floor conference room at 1700 Broadway in Denver lie empty, save a nearly barren conference table, twenty 10-sided dice of various colors and a black plastic model of a castle tower, reminiscent of a Dungeons and Dragons game piece.
The sole occupant of the room — the Dungeon Master, if you will, of the day’s proceedings — was a twenty-something member of the secretary of state’s staff named Melissa, her face barely visible behind thick eyeglasses and a dark face mask.
She adjusted the camera on her computer for optimal video-conference viewing.
In the wee hours that morning, President Donald Trump posted to his Twitter account:
“Mail-In Ballot fraud found in many elections. People are just now seeing how bad, dishonest and slow it is. Election results could be delayed for months. No more big election night answers? 1% not even counted in 2016. Ridiculous! Just a formula for RIGGING an Election….”
At 9:15 a.m., Melissa dropped a die into the castle tower. It clicked and rattled past the parapet, down the castle’s keep, through the plastic innards of the model and emerged in a round catch tray at the bottom.
“One,” she announced to those jacked in to the Zoom meeting.
She recorded the number, then dropped another die.
“That’s also a one,” she said.
“That’s an eight…
Another die was dropped, another number was recorded, again and again, until all 20 dice had rattled their way to the conference table.
As the dice were rolled, the President’s tweets continued:
“…Absentee Ballots are fine because you have to go through a precise process to get your voting privilege. Not so with Mail-Ins. Rigged Election!!! 20% fraudulent ballots?”
The empty conference room, the lone masked staffer, indeed the entire videoconference format, was a COVID-safe alternative to what normally is a very public meeting conducted after every statewide election in Colorado since 2017.
Despite the fun references to the popular role-playing game, the day’s proceedings were a first step in the very serious business of ensuring that the president’s mail-in ballot “fraud” scenario has not and will not occur in Colorado.
In the seven years since Colorado implemented mail-in voting, under both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, via laws passed by both Democrat- and Republican-controlled legislatures, fraud has been minuscule to the point of almost nonexistence in the state.
And in Colorado, the gold-standard of vote integrity begins with a 20-digit number, gleaned by rolling twenty 10-sided dice.
For Colorado’s June 2020 primary, that number is 11876677954665453986.
“Well, perfect,” Secretary of State Jenna Griswold said after the last die dropped and the last number was recorded. “Thank you, elections team. Thank you, Melissa. Very exciting dice roll. It may have been facilitated by a Dungeons and Dragons piece of equipment. I can neither confirm or deny that.”
The 20-digit “random seed” was plugged into a complex algorithm that ultimately instructed county clerks throughout the state in conducting a “risk-limiting audit,” selecting a random sampling of ballots to confirm the overall accuracy of the vote.
So, How Does it Work?
The risk-limiting audit (RLA) is the brainchild of University of California, Berkeley, statistics professor Dr. Philip Stark. The goal of the audit is to catch human errors, flaws in vote-count machines, and intentional fraud, by re-counting certain randomly selected ballots to see if the vote margin of the sample mirrors the vote margins tallied on election night.
The 20-digit seed is plugged into software which randomly selects specific ballots to be pulled and hand-counted. If the vote margins in the random sample are within a candidate’s margin of victory, the vote is certified. If not, another round of random ballots is selected and re-counted. The process can be repeated as many times as needed to get an accurate result — until every vote is re-counted, if necessary.
While Colorado is the only state to fully employ a statewide RLA so far, the concept is catching on. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, four states have laws requiring risk-limiting audits (RLAs) — Colorado, which passed HB 1335 in 2009, followed in 2017 by Rhode Island and Virginia. Nevada passed an RLA law this year.
In 2018, California passed AB 2125, which allows local jurisdictions to choose to conduct a RLA. In 2019, Indiana SB 405 and Georgia HB 316 enacted legislation allowing RLA pilot programs to be conducted by selected local jurisdictions.
Ohio and Washington have optional RLAs. In Washington, SB 2406 allows local election officials to choose one of three audit methods, an RLA being one. In Ohio, a 2017 secretary of state directive recommended RLAs, but did not mandate them for local jurisdictions. Several other jurisdictions across the country have participated in RLA pilot programs.
County Clerks — the First and Last Line of Defense
About two hours south of Denver on Interstate 25 is the rural foothills hamlet of Walsenburg, population 3,046, the county seat of Huerfano County.
On July 13 at 12:30 p.m., Huerfano County Elections Deputy Angie “Sam” Glover, another member of the county clerk’s staff, and six bipartisan election judges gathered in the county commissioners’ chambers, under security cameras, flanked by about a dozen large plastic bins containing every primary ballot cast in the county.
It was time for the risk-limiting audit to commence.
The ballots had been numbered and bundled as they came out of the counting machines on election night. The bins were filled and marked, sealed, and placed in a vault, all in anticipation of this gathering.
Two judges, a Democrat and Republican, unsealed the bins, pulled the appropriate ballots based on a state list, and handed them to another bipartisan pair of judges, who entered the vote counts into a computer. A third bipartisan pair of judges then took the ballots and replaced them in proper order in the bins.
The work progressed swiftly and efficiently, Glover said. The team was done in about an hour and a half. Across the state that day, 64 county clerks were engaged 64 variations of the same exercise.
But Glover said the RLA was not the only local safeguard undertaken that day.
After the RLA, another bipartisan group, the “canvass team,” compared vote tallies logged on the county’s Dominion vote-counting machines against the numbers reported in the state’s SCORE database. The two systems are not connected in any way, she said, so a discrepancy in the numbers would indicate something fundamentally amiss in the vote count. Huerfano County’s numbers matched, she said.
As yet another layer of defense against voting fraud, the county clerks help maintain a statewide database of signatures, scanned from original voter registration paperwork and subsequent ballots. As the paper ballots are being read, signatures on the ballots can be compared to those in the database to make sure they match.
Glover said the Huerfano County crew flagged a dozen questionable signatures during the June 30 primary. She said voters were sent a letter explaining why the signature was questioned and a form to verify the ballot and signature.
Of the 2,738 votes cast in the primary, Glover said only one suspect ballot was rejected and forwarded to the district attorney for investigation. In that case, she said, a registered Democrat returned a Republican ballot. Glover said several members of the same household were unaffiliated, and thus received both Democratic and Republican ballots. She said she suspects it was an honest mistake. But all such ballots are forwarded to authorities.
‘I Feel Very Secure in Our Election’
Whether by mail-in votes or in-person polling, numerous studies have largely debunked the myth of broad-brush voter fraud in America.
A study in 2011 by the Republican National Lawyers Association found that, between 2000 and 2010, 21 states had one or no convictions for voter fraud or other kinds of voting irregularities. Five states had a total of three convictions over a 10-year period. Rhode Island had four convictions for the same 10 years. Taking a close look at the RNLA data shows 30 states, including the District of Columbia, had three or fewer voter fraud convictions for a 10 year period.
A 2020 study conducted by the Washington Post and the Electronic Registration Information Center analyzed Colorado and two other vote-by-mail states. It identified 372 possible cases of vote fraud in the 2016 and 2018 general elections, out of about 14.6 million votes casts, or roughly 0.0025%.
A 2007 study by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law set the voter fraud rate at between 0.003% and 0.0025%, largely mirroring the Washington Post’s numbers and academic studies from Arizona State University and Columbia University.
It is more likely, the Brennan Center report noted, that an American “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”
Closer to home, Glover agrees.
“I feel very secure in our election,” she said. “Some people have made the comment on TV that bad actors could print ballots. If that name and ballot and envelope were not already in my database, they’re not going anywhere. The envelope has to match with the ballot, or it is tossed out.”
2020 Primary Vote is Official
The process which began July 10 with twenty 10-sided dice rolled in an Denver conference room and continued in county clerks’ offices throughout the state, concluded with a Tuesday, July 28 press release from the secretary of state’s office.
Griswold announced that Colorado’s bipartisan canvass boards has submitted its official abstract of votes, thereby concluding the 2020 State Primary Election.
“Over 1.6 million Coloradans voted in this year’s State Primary election, which set a turnout record even in the midst of a global pandemic,” said Secretary Griswold. “Colorado’s election model works and Colorado voters are engaged in determining the future of our state. I’d like to recognize and thank everyone who took part in this year’s election, and I’m particularly proud of our Elections Division members’ hard work.”
“Last Wednesday, the Secretary of State’s office worked closely with Colorado’s county clerks to complete the risk-limiting audit, after which each county’s bipartisan canvass board certified the election results in its county,” the release read. Griswold said the canvass boards have submitted the final results to the Secretary of State’s office and the election is now deemed official.
“This is how we have so much confidence in our elections in Colorado — and very luckily we are seeing the expansion of the use of risk-limiting audits,” Griswold said after the July 10 dice roll. “Just two states this year are adopting the use and its just one of the many ways that Colorado is a trailblazer and leads the nation.”
“I just think it’s so important, as we see entities trying to undermine confidence in our elections, ranging from Russia to the inhabitants of the White House, that we continue to just do things that shows that Colorado should have confidence in the election results,” she said.
“And we really hope the rest of the country will follow our lead.”