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From mid-October until Election Day on November 3, Dick Gish and Tom Radigan spend around 10 hours a day driving a loop between downtown and the far southeastern edge of Denver. Along the way they stop at the same three sites—Cook Park Recreation Center, the Windsor Gardens Community Center, and Montclair Recreation Center—pick up ballots from poll workers or 24-hour drop boxes, and put them in secure containers for transport, all while meticulously documenting every step.
It’s repetitive work. Many would probably get bored with it. But what Gish and Radigan do every day for this nearly 30-day stretch has become an essential part of how democracy functions in Colorado. “Our role makes it easier for everyone to be able to vote,” says Radigan. “I take pride in that.”
The Denver Elections Division employs 33 election judges—basically, a fancy term for temporary election workers—like Gish and Radigan, who help gather and move ballots. (Additionally, 1,000-plus part-time employees help with things like sorting and counting ballots. More than 8,000 people applied for those gigs during this election cycle.) Colorado has had a wide-scale mail-in ballot system since 2014, which heavily relies on election judges transporting ballots from drop boxes to the Denver Elections Division headquarters near the Colorado State Capitol.
But the entire system has come under increased scrutiny this year, with President Donald Trump claiming without evidence that mail-in ballots are ripe for fraud and more people choosing to vote in this manner because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of midday Monday, the Denver elections team had collected 160,524 ballots from 24-hour drop boxes; that number was 50,500 with eight days left in the 2016 election.
Both Gish, 74, and Radigan, 69, started working on Denver elections around 2014. The two retirees got the gig after a hiring process that included an extensive background check. (During their six-some years on the job, Gish and Radigan say they’ve worked with everyone from other retired folks to college kids earning extra money on summer break.) Their training for this role included classroom work, as well as multiple outings with an experienced judge, who taught them every aspect of the detailed system they use. “We have a very specific way of doing things,” says Gish. Of note: Each election judge pairing, including Gish and Radigan, must feature members of differing political parties (i.e. one Republican and one Democrat).
On Thursday, October 22, I accompanied Gish and Radigan as they made their circuitous route around Denver to see how they keep your ballot safe. The process begins at 6 a.m. every day, when Gish and Radigan arrive at the Denver Elections Division office. At that time, they typically check out multiple red and blue containers from the office and load them into a government-issued van. Each container can hold around 450 ballots and is also marked with numbers to keep track of who had possession if one goes missing. “Some people think the red ones are for Republican ballots and the blue ones are for Democratic ballots,” says Gish. “But we’re going to fill red ones up with ballots taken from drop boxes or drive-up locations, and the blue ones are for ballots filled out at in-person polling locations.”
I met up with Gish and Radigan around 1 p.m. Our first stop was one of the white 24-hour drop boxes at Cook Park Recreation Center, where Radigan unlocked the main box and began shoveling ballots into one of the red containers. “I think this is around 250 ballots,” says Radigan. “That’s about average. It’s definitely not as much as we were picking up the first few days. These things were pretty full.”
While Radigan wrangled envelopes, Gish filled out paperwork about what they were collecting, including where the ballots were retrieved from, what number box they were using, who was picking them up, and finally the number attached to two yellow seals they would eventually use to shut the red container. After filling out the form, he dropped a yellow copy in the red box with the ballots before he shut it, and put a white and pink copy in a binder for later use. They then shut the container using two locks and the yellow seals. “The seals are important,” Gish says. “If they are broken we can tell someone messed with it.”
Around 2 p.m., we made a quick stop at the drop box at Windsor Gardens, where they repeated the same process. Along the way, they told me what it was like to have more people paying attention to their jobs during this election cycle. “Most people we encounter are pretty nice,” says Radigan. “They thank us for what we are doing. We thank them for voting. We’ve had a couple people be hesitant about handing us their ballot, but that’s about it.” Both men do carry official badges while on the job, and the drop boxes are also monitored by 24-hour surveillance.
After Windsor Gardens, we visited a Voting Service and Polling Center (VSPC) at Montclair Recreation Center around 2:15 p.m., which along with a 24-hour drop box is also home to a drive-up where voters can hand their completed ballot to a real person or vote in person. (Cook Park Recreation Center and Windsor Gardens will also be turned into full-service voting locations at some point in the next week.) “The people inside can help you with all sorts of problems,” says Gish. “We’re talking ‘dog ate my ballot’ sort of stuff.”
While at Montclair, Gish and Radigan delivered a blue container to the staff inside and grabbed a red container from the folks working the drive-up. During the 20 minutes we spent at the location, only one person went inside to fill out their ballot in person, while at least seven people dropped off their voting ticket at the drive through. The workers said that the small sample size was representative of what they have been seeing since voting started.
Visits to VSPCs, though, often involve more than just an exchange of voting tickets. Election judges also help out poll workers by bringing things like extra hand sanitizer and masks. While we were at Montclair, Radigan set up a heat lamp for employees working the drive-through outside. “We try to look out for each other,” Gish says. “The camaraderie is one of the reasons I like this job.”
We returned to the Denver election headquarters downtown just after 3 p.m., and Gish and Radigan took the three red containers they gathered to a locked room manned by a security guard. They left the white copy of the paperwork Gish filled out earlier on top of each box so that it could be cross checked with the yellow paper already inside when the ballots are moved to be counted. Gish and Radigan keep the pink sheets in case anything is off and they need to figure out what happened.
From there, the other 1,000-plus election employees take over. Ballots are sorted and scanned. An electronic copy is sent to signature verification judges—temporary employees trained by a former FBI forensic handwriting expert. If the John Hancock doesn’t match what is on file, voters have until nine days after the election to cure it. And finally, if everything checks out, the tickets are sent through a digital scanner, which was rigorously tested before the election, so the choices can be tallied. During the last step, the digital scanner pinpoints ballots that have votes that have been crossed out and changed, allowing judges to rule on the intent of those adjustments. Alton Dillard, communications manager for Denver Elections Division, says that the entire system I witnessed is roughly the same in every Colorado county.
As I departed, Gish and Radigan headed out to make their route one more time. The 33 election judges who do such work usually stop at each ballot box around three to six times during a shift. Come November 4, though, transporting what is sure to have been a record number of ballots will have some personal pay off. “We get a nice check just in time for Christmas,” says Radigan. “Might try to take a trip.”