Community profile: Behind the scenes with Garfield County Elections judge Pat Tomasko
Signature verification the first step before your ballot gets counted
The unique curves, slants and sizes of people’s signatures are something Patricia Tomasko has become intimately familiar with in recent years.
Tomasko is one of Garfield County’s longtime election judges, and her primary task the past few elections has been on the team charged with verifying voter signatures.
With Colorado’s mail balloting system, voters are required to sign the outside of the return envelope before they mail back or return their ballot at one of the designated drop-box locations.
Once ballots start coming in, bipartisan teams of election judges are charged with going through batches of ballots one-by-one checking signatures.
First, they need to make sure the ballot is in fact signed. Second, they compare the signatures on the ballot to those on file in the state’s voter registration electronic database to see if they match.
It’s not as simple as it sounds.
Especially with the use of electronic signatures through motor-vehicle registrations and online platforms, they often don’t quite match the hand-written signature, Tomasko said.
But there are some subtle things to look for.
“We’re mostly looking for characteristics like the slant of the signature, or the way someone makes their capital letters,” Tomasko said. “More often than not, we find that they’re good.”
If one is questionable, there’s an extra tier of inspection this election year using a second team of bipartisan judges to make a determination, or to flag it for follow-up by Garfield County Clerk and Recorder Jean Alberico’s full-time elections staff.
Whenever there’s an unsigned ballot or a signature that is questionable, a voter is notified that they have until eight days after the election to cure it so their vote can be counted.
That’s why, in some of those tight races or ballot issues, it can sometimes take several days afterwards to declare an outcome.
It’s a fascinating process, Tomasko said.
“You’d be surprised, even with the electronic signatures, when you take a close look it really does look like the same signature,” she said.
“It’s a little bit tedious, but it’s interesting to see some people’s signatures. Some are so fluid and beautiful and artistic, and others, you’d swear they were all doctors. They’re just scribbles,” she said in reference to a common joke about physicians’ prescription signatures.
Tomasko, 67, first began working as an election judge in her native Wisconsin, where her father was also a regular election judge.
After moving to Colorado in 1985, first to the Vail area, then to Glenwood Springs in 1990 and later to New Castle, she decided to continue the tradition.
“My cousin had been living out here for a long time and said I should come visit,” she said. “I fell in love with the place, and decided to quit my job and move to Colorado.”
At the time, she had been working as a correctional officer at a womens’ prison. Once in Colorado, she got a job as a dispatcher for the Vail Police Department, and after moving to Glenwood she went to work for Colorado Mountain College as an assistant registrar in the central offices for 27 years before retiring in June 2017.
Her husband, Kenneth Smith, is a self-employed architect in the area.
When Tomasko first began working Garfield County elections in 1990, she was a precinct judge.
In those days and up until 2013 when Colorado adopted its mail-ballot system, each precinct had its own polling place and people voted in person on Election Day at their neighborhood precinct — same as many other states continue to do.
Tomasko worked Precinct 8 in Glenwood Springs, which was set up at the First United Methodist Church, and later at various precinct locations in New Castle, including the Voter Service and Polling Center at the New Castle Library in recent years.
She’ll always remember when a first-time voter came in, either having just turned 18 or having become a newly naturalized citizen of the United States.
“The election judges all applaud when that happens, because that’s a really proud moment. I get tears in my eyes when I think about it,” Tomasko said.
And, of course, the babies.
“Sometimes the election judges would get to hold a baby while mom voted,” she said. “I always loved it when we would see kids come in, no matter what age, so that they can see civics in action.
“We just don’t teach civics anymore, and that was one of my favorite subjects.”
Mail ballots bring change
Tomasko said she does miss the personal interaction that came with Election Day precinct voting. But she likes the ease of the mail-ballot system, which has greatly increased voter participation.
“My father would often talk about how he just had a good time chatting with people, and I think that’s why there are still a lot of people who go in on Election Day (to one of the live Voter Service Centers) to vote, because they want to see people they haven’t seen in a while,” Tomasko said.
“I do kind of miss that, but with mail ballots there’s just so much more opportunity for people to have a chance to vote,” she said.
During some of the bigger elections in the past, there would often be long lines at the polling places, she said; at least by rural Garfield County standards, though nothing like the big-city precincts.
Part of the hold-up was that people still had to sign the voter verification card before they could receive their ballot, so mail-ballot voting is far more streamlined.
“I think the way Colorado does things is ever so much better, and very secure. And, it gives the greatest chance for people to vote,” she said.
Instead of limiting people to voting only in their neighborhood precinct, voters can now drop their ballot at any official drop-box location in the county, or with one of the staffed Voter Service Centers.
The service centers also allow someone who is eligible to register to vote, even on Election Day, and to receive a ballot.
“It’s just so much easier for people than it used to be,” Tomasko said.
Normally, Garfield County would have a Voter Service Center in each town leading up to Election Day, but with coronavirus restrictions those have been limited this year.
With fewer staffed voting centers, Alberico said Tomasko has become a valuable member of the ballot processing team.
“Pat has also done the Logic and Accuracy testing of the voting equipment prior to the election,” Alberico noted. “Her love of elections and dedication to this wonderful democratic process is greatly appreciated.”
One of the unique things about being an election judge is that the process is required to involve judges representing both major political parties.
Tomasko, a Democrat, first became an election judge under former Garfield Clerk and Recorder Mildred Alsdorf, a Republican. Alberico is a Democrat, and there’s a representative mix of both among the election judges.
“We don’t really think about it, except when we have to bring a ballot up from the processing room,” Tomasko said. “We’ll say, ‘we need a Democrat,’ or ‘we need a Republican,’ so that we have a bipartisan team.”
“Everybody gets along very well with each other,” she said. “There’s a lot of chit-chat about everything under the sun, except politics.”
That’s strictly forbidden as a matter of policy.
“It wouldn’t work to the extent that it does if we had back fighting,” she said. “And, it would not be as secure and fair if any of that was going on.”
Tomasko has done some partisan work, including voter registration drives for the Democratic Party in Wisconsin and some here in Colorado when the judges are not active.
Her message to eligible electors about the importance of registering and voting?
“Every vote, and every voice counts,” she said. “That’s even more true at the local level. If you complain about the way things are going, you have to vote in order for things to change. If you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain about it.”
Being an election judge is a paid position, but Tomasko said she’d do it for free, just because she’s that passionate about the election process.
In terms of the time commitment, it varies by task, she said. The signature verification process involves multiple seven-hour days once ballots start coming in.
This week, there will be two shifts of verifiers on Monday and Tuesday, in addition to having the three staffed Voter Service and Polling Centers, and all of the other duties involved during the final two days of voting, and continuing throughout the week.
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