A lawsuit filed Tuesday in the state Supreme Court is aimed at blocking the use of bar codes on election ballots in Washington because they could be used to identify a voter’s choices.
The lawsuit, which names Secretary of State Sam Reed as defendant, alleges that more than 1 million Washington voters could have their secret vote preferences violated in counties that use certain ballot-tracking equipment. Elections officials say the claim is not true.
“In addition to violating statutory ballot secrecy standards, the use of ballot IDs threatens actual compromise of ballot secrecy,” declares the suit prepared by Knoll Lowney, an attorney who has filed suits in the past against targets such as Tim Eyman’s initiatives, U.S. Senate candidate Mike McGavick and the Building Industry Association of Washington.
Lowney estimated that one-third of eligible voters are affected in Washington, but Reed’s elections chief denied that there is any risk.
Never miss a local story.
“There is no way in this state to track a ballot back to an individual voter once it’s been separated from the secrecy envelope,” state elections director Nick Handy said. “There are various codes and markings on ballots. Those codes and markings are there to basically tell the tabulation equipment what style or type of ballot that is.”
Handy said ballots vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, so they can vary even for neighbors who might be on different sides of the boundary of a fire, school or legislative district.
When Democratic challenger Jason Osgood brought up the ballot-marks issue in last year’s campaign, Republican Reed said bar codes on ballot envelopes help to track the envelopes and ensure they are not mislaid – much as a shipping company can track a package without knowing its contents.
Systems from the HART and VoteHere vendors are used by about 25 of the state’s 39 counties, the lawsuit states. The systems employ identifying marks or bar codes to help track the location of ballots in the return and counting process, but Handy said it would violate the state constitution and law to have marks that allow a voter’s selections to be made public.
Even so, Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman has said she won’t allow individual tracking marks on ballots out of concern that the public would object. Wyman does use bar codes that help identify which batch or precinct a ballot is from.
The lawsuit was filed at the state Supreme Court in a move that also is aimed at transferring a similar suit against San Juan County’s auditor to the state’s highest court. Lowney said Reed’s office has purchased a ballot-tracking technology, or mail-in ballot tracker, from VoteHere for $1.5 million, and that it requires a unique identifier on each ballot. Reed also encouraged use of a HART system that also has been used to add identifiers to ballots in 21 counties, the suit contends.
Mason County uses the HART system, which has unique identifiers on ballots, but populous Pierce, King and Snohomish counties do not.
“We are told that we can trust this company to make sure that linkage remains secret, is hidden, is encrypted, whatever. But the fact is, no one should have to rely on a private company in an uncertified system to maintain the secrecy of the ballot,” Lowney said Tuesday, adding that the VoteHere system has “never been subject to certification by the state of Washington.”
Among the parties to the suit is Tim White, an Olympia native who lives in San Juan County and has been battling elections officials there for at least three years over the issue. White contended that VoteHere “has deep ties to the Republican Party and partisan espionage operatives.”
Other parties include Allan Rosato, Linda Orgel, Arthur Grunbaum and the Green Party of San Juan County. Orgel and Grunbaum are from Grays Harbor County.
Complaints about the San Juan elections equipment are pending in local superior court. That county’s auditor, Milene Henry, also is named in the new complaint.
The lawsuit, White vs. Reed, is case No. 83342-7 at the Washington State Supreme Court.
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688