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A lot more than you might realize goes into getting your Colorado mail-in ballot from A to Z

A look behind the scenes of Colorado’s system of mailing ballots to every voter in the state and what it means for the U.S. Postal Service

Pallets of ballots fill a section of the U.S. Postal Service's Denver Processing and Distribution Center on Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. The facility will process about 2.1 million election 2018 ballots over the next several days -- about two-thirds of all the ballots that will be mailed for this year's general election in Colorado. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Inside of a northeast Denver building spanning roughly seven football fields, the journey begins for about two-thirds of the more than 3 million ballots that will be mailed to voters ahead of the Nov. 6 election.

It’s here that the U.S. Postal Service plays its vital role in Colorado’s all-mail-in elections.

The building was roiling with activity Monday morning as workers began working their way through a sea of pallets carrying the longer-than-usual ballots — thanks to so many questions for voters — that must be distributed across the state.

MORE: A preview of Colorado’s 2018 ballot: Taxes, roads and an existential crisis for oil and gas

But more than you might think goes into getting all of those ballots to their destinations.

The Postal Service works with Colorado’s county clerks for months in advance of elections to make sure the ballots are perfectly sized, printed and packaged.

Something as minor as a misprinted barcode could spell chaos for the finely tuned dance that is ballot distribution. If ballots are the wrong size, the machines that sort them at a rate of 40,000 pieces an hour could be held up.

“We’ve been prepping all year long for it. (It’s) not just the contents, but what does the outside of a ballot look like?” said David Rupert, a USPS spokesman. “What if you had a bad barcode with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ballots?”

David Rupert, a U.S. Postal Service spokesman, walks through the sprawling Denver Processing and Distribution Center on Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. “We’ve been prepping all year long,” he said. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The Postal Service has even created a position to manage the wave of ballots: a Colorado election coordinator.

That’s Donna Walker’s job. She was making her way through the Denver Processing and Distribution Center north of Interstate 270 near the Commerce City border on Monday, keeping tabs on the carts and pallets zooming around to sorting stations.

“Crunch time, it can be a little chaotic,” she joked.

MORE: Check the mail: Colorado’s Election 2018 ballots are on their way. Here’s what you need to know.

Colorado is one of three states that mail ballots to every voter thanks to a bill passed by the legislature in 2013. The others are Washington and Oregon.

About 2.1 million ballots are expected to pass through the center alone over the next few days. About 400,000 of those are for Denver County voters.

A U.S. Postal Service worker moves a pallet of election ballots at the Denver Processing and Distribution Center on Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

First, county clerks check their rolls with the Colorado Department of Corrections and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to make sure no voters have died or been imprisoned on a felony charge. County clerks contract for ballot printing.

Finally,  the documents make  their way to the Denver mail processing plant where they are fed into machines and sorted by ZIP code for delivery.

Typically the sprawling facility deals with about 9 million pieces of mail a day, so a few million more ballots don’t lead to pandemonium.

“It’s just that pace gets a higher tempo,” said Rogers Pierre, a mechanic at the Denver Processing and Distribution Center as he monitored a machine about to process ballots.

Rogers Pierre inspects a mail processing machine at the Denver Processing and Distribution Center on Monday, Oct. 15, 2018, before ballots pass through it. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Each county must pay the Postal Service to mail its ballots out to voters. Denver is doling about $675,000 this year between postage and printing costs.

Voters cover the cost of postage to get their ballots back to their county clerk’s office. For this year’s general election, Denver’s ballot required 71 cents for postage, for instance.

(The USPS won’t refuse your ballot if you are short on postage. )

A U.S. Postal Service worker feeds mail through a processing machine at the Denver Processing and Distribution Center on Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. The machines can process about 40,000 pieces of mail an hour. County elections officials work with USPS to ensure ballots are sized correctly so they won’t jam the machines. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

One last thing to remember: Your ballots must be in the hands of your county’s election officials by 7 p.m. on Election Day,

Nov. 6. postmarks don’t count, so get your ballots in early — as in before Halloween — or plan to drop them off at a designated site. (Denver has more than two dozen 24-hour drop-off boxes.)

The USPS and Denver elections officials will do a final sweep of Denver Processing and Distribution Center on election night to try and snag any straggler ballots that people might send in late. It’s an 11th-hour effort as part of the Postal Service’s broader commitment to ensure the state’s mail-in election process doesn’t confuse or disenfranchise voters.

“We’re right up to the last second,” Rupert said.

A pallet of ballots at the Denver Processing and Distribution Center on Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Follow your ballot

Denver helped pioneer a way to keep track of when your ballot has been printed, mailed to you and then accepted.

Visit https://www.denvergov.org/pocketgov/#/ballot/lookup to see where your ballot is if you live in the city.

You can sign up at that website to receive emails and texts about the status of your ballot.

There is a similar program in Arapahoe County (https://www.arapahoevotes.com/ballot-track), Boulder County (https://www.bouldercounty.org/elections/register/ballot-track/) and Jefferson County (https://www.jeffco.us/3313/BallotTrax).

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