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Politics and Government

61,000 Adams County voters are still missing ballots (and other voting problems around Colorado)

Twenty-five percent of the county's ballots are Adams County's “#1 priority” after sitting in a truck for a week

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A quarter of voters in Adams County — a key 2018 battleground in Colorado — have yet to receive their ballots because one of four trucks carrying them to be mailed didn’t make it to a postal processing center last week.

About 61,000 Adams County ballots — mostly for residents in Thornton, Brighton and Aurora — had yet to be sent as of Tuesday afternoon.

“We’re waiting on the truck to pull up,” U.S. Postal Service spokesman David Rupert said.

Julie Jackson, spokeswoman for Adams County Clerk and Recorder Stan Martin, said it was unclear why the ballots on the truck weren’t unloaded and ended up being returned to a secure location.

She said the office is still investigating to find out what happened.

The office didn’t discover the ballots hadn’t been sent until Monday, when people began questioning where their ballots were, according to an email sent to some voters from Martin. Martin is one of the voters who did not receive a ballot.

Parts of Adams County are in the heavily contested 6th Congressional District, where five-term incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman is in a tight race with Democrat Jason Crow. It’s also host to one of the hottest state Senate contests, where the winner in the match between Democratic state Rep. Faith Winter and incumbent GOP state Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik could determine control of the chamber.

Thornton City Councilman Josh Zygielbaum is running as a Democrat against Martin for clerk and recorder. He said he received his ballot, but he’s heard from at least a dozen people who haven’t.

“It is troubling,” Zygielbaum said. “Whatever the reason for it, it’s inhibiting someone’s right to vote and it needs to be rectified. My hope is that we can get these ballots in people’s hands ASAP.”

Rupert said the post office didn’t receive the ballots last week.

“They weren’t on our lot,” he said. “They weren’t in our possession.”

A worker moves pallets of ballots fill a section of the U.S. Postal Service’s Denver Processing and Distribution Center on Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“Those ballots are the #1 priority for this office and as of this afternoon are in the hands of the USPS,” said a statement posted on the Adams County website.

The statement noted that partisan makeup of the unmailed ballots reflects that of the county, with 24,000 unaffiliated, 19,000 Democratic, 17,000 Republican and 1,000 for minor-party voters. There were 243,227 active registered voters in Adams County as of Sept. 30.

“We anticipate the remaining ballots will be processed … and hit your mailbox in the coming days,” Martin said in an email to voters on Monday.

The post office sorting center north of Interstate 70 in Denver on Oct. 16 began processing more than 3.2 million ballots for delivery to mostly Front Range voters.

More: The Colorado Sun Voter Guide 2018.

More voting problems from around Colorado

The Adams County ballot trouble appears to be the biggest election foul up thus far, with only two weeks to go until Election Day, Nov. 6.

Colorado’s 64 clerks and recorders spent months preparing for the 2018 general election, working alongside the Secretary of State to prepare voting instructions and make sure the correct candidates and ballot measures are included.

But other mistakes are surfacing.

In Weld County, 827 voters received new ballots because of a printing error.

The Gunnison County Clerk had to clarify its directions about which voters need to include copies of their IDs with their ballots.

Voters in Clear Creek County are wondering where their ballot secrecy sleeves are.

And all Gilpin County voters were instructed to return copies of IDs with ballots, as first reported by 9News, even though that isn’t necessary for most people casting ballots.

The Colorado Sun examined ballot instructions from 17 of the state’s 64 counties, as well as elections websites in all the counties.

Misprint in Weld County

In Weld County, a vendor is to blame for the county having to send new ballots to a tiny percentage of its 169,514 active registered voters.

Weld County had to send a note to a small number of voters explaining why they might receive a second ballot. (Provided by Weld County Clerk and Recorder)

“Our print vendor had to hand label 827 ballots because apparently their ink ran out,” Weld County Clerk and Recorder Carly Koppes said. “They did spot checks for every 75 out of the 827.”

But at least a couple of voters received incorrect ballots as a result of relabeling the envelopes, as Koppes learned Friday from a voter. So the county and vendor decided to reissue all 827 ballots.

Instructions sent with the second ballot ask voters to cast it — even if they’ve already cast the original ballot. If they’ve already voted, the first ballot won’t be counted. If they haven’t voted the first ballot, they’re asked to destroy it.

Voter ID confusion

Then there’s the confusion around whether an ID is needed to vote by mail.

Colorado requires people to show identification when registering to vote, but not when casting a ballot by mail.

The exception is when someone registered through a non-government entity, such as a voter-registration drive. Then, first-time voters must submit copies of their IDs along with mail-in ballots.

But Gilpin County instructed all of the nearly 4,300 voters in the rural mountain county to return copies of IDs with their ballots.

The issue stemmed from different sets of instructions intended to go out to different types of voters, said Caleb Thornton, who provides election support to counties for the Secretary of State’s office.

“They had two different versions,” Thornton said. “The mistake that was made was that they sent out the ‘ID-required’ version to everybody.”

Gilpin County Clerk Colleen Stewart posted an apology for the error on the county website, and noted that voters would receive postcards clarifying the process.

The Secretary of State’s office approves voter instructions sent to voters by county clerks. It offers several templates for counties that don’t want to design their own.

One of those templates, apparently used in Gunnison County, has a space for the county to “insert information here to indicate whether a voter must provide ID.”

Gunnison County filled in that blank with language that confused many voters: “An ‘ID’ means you must submit identification with your ballot for your vote to be counted. This is located on the return envelope label.”

Many voters called with questions, the clerk’s office acknowledged.

Gunnison County’s Clerk and Recorder posted a photo of the ballot return envelope with a hand-drawn arrow pointing out the code that indicates whether voters need to include a copy of their ID when they mail their ballots. (Screen grab from Gunnison County Clerk’s website)

The clerk’s office clarified the instructions in a note on its website and included a photo of a ballot envelope with an arrow drawn pointing to a small “ID” printed in black at the top corner.

Counties may issue one set of instructions for all voters, Thornton said, including a way for voters to determine if they need to send copies of IDs.

That’s what Gunnison County was doing, and what Boulder County does. If an ID is required in Boulder County, voters receive a purple insert telling them it’s needed.

“The first time you cast a ballot in the mail you have to provide a copy of ID,” said Mircalla Wozniak, a spokeswoman for the Boulder County Clerk’s office. “For us it makes more logistical sense to have one set of instructions. Counties do it different ways.”

She said between 1,000 and 3,000 Boulder County voters typically need to provide ID, usually because they registered during drives conducted by non-governmental groups.

Mesa County’s instructions say if there’s a stamp “ID required” next to the name on the envelope or a red bar near the top of the envelope, voters must include a photocopy of an ID.

Other counties, such as Denver, Douglas, Pitkin and Jefferson, send separate ballot instructions to those who need to submit IDs and those who don’t. Instructions to voters who don’t need IDs make no mention of the requirement.

In Eagle, San Juan, Larimer, La Plata, Garfield, Weld and Pueblo county instructions note that “the signature on your official return envelope will be used to verify your ID.” Arapahoe instructions tell voters they have already met ID requirements if that’s the case.

Missing secrecy sleeves

Then there’s the secrecy sleeve issue.

Earlier this year, the legislature approved a law saying a secrecy sleeve is no longer required because counties use two people in the ballot-review process, said Lynn Bartels, spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s office.

That requires one person to confirm a signature and handle the envelope without viewing the ballot, and a second to remove the ballot without seeing the signature on the envelope.

Clear Creek County posted a message to voters that while it intends to continue using the secrecy sleeves, not all voters received them. It suggested that voters use the voter instructions included with their ballot as a substitute, or contact the clerk’s office for a sleeve.

Some counties are crafting ballot instructions to be used as secrecy sleeves, Bartels said. They include El Paso, one of the state’s largest counties, with 475,488 registered voters.

Check your registration, report problems

Meanwhile, Coloradans who think they should have received a ballot but have not can check their registration at govotecolorado.com. Voters who don’t return ballots or reply to postcards from county clerks are considered “inactive.” Updating voter registration with address changes or other information will return them to the voter rolls.

But Oct. 29 is the deadline to make such changes and still receive a ballot in the mail. After that, voters must go to a voting center or clerk’s office to request a ballot.

Are you experiencing voting issues in Colorado? Share them with ProPublica’s ElectionLand and The Colorado Sun.

Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

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