Printing mistake, old equipment force lengthy hand count of Montrose ballots

Election judges hand-count ballots at the old courthouse in Montrose on Wednesday. More than 10,600 mailed-in ballots were being counted manually because of a printing mistake.

Antiquated election equipment, glitches and an expensive printing mistake added up to Montrose County's primary election night turning into election week.

Teams of judges continued to tally votes by hand Wednesday after a fiasco with ballot printing made it impossible to complete the primary election by machine Tuesday night.

The labor-intensive process began after Montrose County Clerk Tressa Guynes announced that the company hired for the print job sent the wrong ballot, one her office asked the company to delete because it wasn't working on their 12-year-old election system. Instead, the old ballot was printed, used by voters, and couldn't be counted by their machine programmed to read the new ballot, forcing a hand count of more than 10,600 ballots.

Deputy County Clerk Kim Wright estimated she asked the vendor, Integrated Voting Solutions, to destroy the old version of the ballot in mid-May. The office sent a revised ballot to the company, asking them to destroy the previous version due to a glitch with the file. Staff noticed this problem when they tested the system and attempted to use the audio features of the ballot for disabled voters who needed it read aloud, which is required for compliance with federal election rules. They found it was garbled.

"Away they went and, 24,000 ballots later, they had printed all the wrong ones," Wright said.

"I had this nightmare that they printed our ballots wrong," she said. Unfortunately her fears were confirmed when Guynes received her ballot, opened it, and found it was the previous version that her office had asked IVS to destroy.

Though the ballot included all the correct candidates and information, it was a different version than the one programmed into the machines that could tally the votes, which was used by those who voted in person, according to Wright. Attempts to tally the ballots separately, using tandem scanners programmed for the different versions of the ballot, failed.

IVS took responsibility for the incident and said the county isn't to blame, though the antiquated election system's glitch is what caused the ballot to need revising in the first place.

"The county didn't do anything," said Marie Cramer, vice president of sales for the company's Denver office. She called the mistaken use of the old ballot "100 percent human error," which happened when the old version was moved to a file instead of being destroyed with the other copies.

"We've never had anything like this happen," she said.

Cramer said she hasn't discussed invoicing the county for the ballots and wasn't sure what would happen regarding payment. The bid was for $26,175, according to information obtained from Montrose County with a Colorado Open Records Act request.

"At this point, they haven't asked for any money, and our desire is not to pay them any money," Wright said.

There were some warning signs about inaccuracies with IVS' services prior to the discovery of the ballot issue, according to Wright.

During the municipal election this spring, IVS sent a handful of Montrose's ballots to Frederick, a city on the Front Range. Guynes said the company agreed to remove all other counties' election materials from the production floor if they worked with them again.

But in the primary election, IVS also sent 26 of the county's ballots to Huerfano County, Wright said, and there were instances where unaffiliated voters received two ballots from the same party instead of one Republican and one Democratic ballot to choose from.

Those at the clerk's office said there was another sign things weren't quite right with the batch of primary ballots — that the sequencing of the ballots wasn't precise. All of them were there, but they just weren't organized in the typical fashion.

"I believe they knew they were not in sync with the numbering but went ahead and kept going," Wright said.

IVS printed ballots for 24 Colorado counties in the primary election this week, Kramer said.

Montrose County, which has about 25,000 registered voters, is the 60th of 64 counties in the state to upgrade its elections system. The expenditure was approved unanimously by commissioners last week, when Guynes told them plans to survive one more election weren't possible.

Commissioners approved $157,000 last week for the upgrade, which hasn't been installed yet.

The upgrade was planned for 2019, an off-year election, to allow staff to train on the new equipment. The office also wanted to stagger training on the Department of Revenue's new system modernizing the license plate and registration system, set to go live in August.

Five teams of three election judges and clerk's office staff worked from 7 a.m. until late Wednesday, only taking breaks for meals brought into the office so they could keep working. A hand count for a mid-sized county like Montrose is unusual. Jackson and Mineral counties regularly use hand counts, according to secretary of state spokeswoman Lynn Bartels, but those counties' populations are less than 1,500 and 1,000, respectively.

The increased labor costs of the election aren't certain, but normally election judges would have been finished working late Tuesday and Wright expects they will still be working on Friday.

Guynes and Wright credited representatives from the Secretary of State's Office for their support in organizing the hand count and overseeing the operation, especially because Guynes is a candidate on the ballot herself and must maintain careful boundaries with the election, though she ran unopposed.

Regardless of how the votes are counted, Wright said she hopes constituents understand the integrity of the election has been preserved and is being handled in a responsible manner.

"The things we have in place really ensure that we can be confident that the results are what the results are," she said.

Editor's note: Marie Cramer's last name was written as Kramer in a prior version of this story and has been corrected.

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