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International visitors go behind the scenes to see how Colorado got its reputation as one of the safest states to vote

Even on Colorado’s election eve, there’s room to show off the democratic process

Chhabi Mahali, a a state coordinator of the youth wing of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, visits the Denver Elections Division office on Nov. 5, 2018, to see how the city verifies and counts voter ballots. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)
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Watching boxes of paper ballots get wheeled into the Denver Elections Division office, checked for signature verification and moved through the entire process to count the votes — on the day before election day, no less — left Chhabi Mahali with three words: “Just simply speechless.”

Mahali was among a delegation of civic-minded young professionals from India on a trip to learn more about the political system in the United States. Earlier stops included Washington, D.C., and Chicago. But the trip to Colorado became a highlight of the two-week tour, even though she had been unfamiliar with Denver and Colorado.

“Here, when I walked in and I saw that citizens are engaged voluntarily and some have been doing it for a long time, more than 35 years, and some for the first time, they are doing it out of interest,” said Mahali, who is a state coordinator of the youth wing of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. “The most important thing, apart from voting, is they’re engaged in the process. They witness things. They understand there is no tampering, there is no rigging, there is no manipulation, which is incredible.”

Colorado has been attracting global attention for its voting process, partly due to implementing new security and verification features, such as randomly checking whether votes in the system match up with the actual paper ballot. But it’s also been featured in articles in the Washington Post, Vice News and Fox News that called Colorado “the safest state to cast a vote.” And that’s helped put the state on the map for countries like India. On Tuesday, a group from Hungary is expected to stop by to observe the state’s election process. 

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, center, speaks to young professionals from India on the eve of the November 2018 election. The delegation is part of the U.S. Department of State’s professional exchange program called the International Visitor Leadership Program and was in Denver Monday to find out more about the elections process in Colorado and Denver. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

“You’ve caught us at the busiest time of year, which is probably your intent,” Wayne Williams, Colorado’s Secretary of State, told the group who were part of the U.S. Department of State’s professional exchange program called the International Visitor Leadership Program.

Administering the voting process in Colorado may seem tedious to a country with a population nearly four times larger than the United States. Denver alone hires an extra 600 temporary workers to make sure there are pairs of Republican and Democratic election judges throughout the process. The group from India seemed shocked to hear that every registered voter in Colorado is mailed a ballot. Of those who vote in Colorado, more than 90 percent mail in their ballots, Williams said.

All ballots are checked for the registered signature as added verification. Williams said he knows this works from personal experience as a father. His daughter complained to him about her own vote not counting one year because it didn’t match the scrawl she had when she registered to vote as a college student.

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“So it was appropriately disqualified. But you have eight days until after the election to make good. She got a letter and she called me, ‘Dad, you didn’t count my ballot,’” he said. “And I said, ‘That’s correct.’ But she went through the process to make it good.”

Williams is also up for re-election as Secretary of State on Tuesday.

Back over at the Denver Elections office, another room had machines that verify signatures to get a 95 percent accuracy rate. Those that don’t pass get sent to a room full of election judges — both Republicans and Democrats — who finish the process.

In front of machines that verify signatures, Alton Dillard (middle), with the Denver Elections Division , speaks to Saurabh Bharadwaj (on left) a member of the Delhi Legislative Assembly, and a group liaison. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

The openness of the voting process really impressed Saurabh Bharadwaj, an Indian politician who serves as an Assembly Member of the Delhi Legislative Assembly.

“This is very important. Once people lose faith in the democratic process, the whole democracy goes. Democracy must be believed in by the people. And transparency is the best way of doing it,” Bharadwaj said. “How confident is the State Department to showcase this to anybody. We are literally outsiders, and they are letting us into every stage of the process. They are letting us take photographs and take videos.”

Transparency is something he hopes India would welcome more. But he has his doubts.

“Even if I’m running for an election, I cannot go and click pictures inside the counting station. I cannot do this in my own country,” he said. “Probably Colorado has one of the best processes in voting, and so I think this is why we are here.”

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