The state Supreme Court has been asked to determine whether bar codes on election ballots violate a voter’s right to a secret ballot.
Good. Let’s get this question settled once and for all so voters can have faith that Washington has a fair and honest election system where voter privacy is paramount. It’s certainly our hope that the election system approved by the state’s chief elections officer — Secretary of State Sam Reed — can withstand the scrutiny of the state’s highest court.
The truth is that election technology has come a long way in a short time. It wasn’t that many years ago, for example, that Thurston County voters were using the old paper ballots that had to be tabulated by hand one at a time. The results were posted on a chalkboard in the county auditor’s office.
With the advent of computers, Thurston County, like many others counties in the state and across the nation, converted to punch card ballots. Voters punched out cardboard chads to designate their choices, then those cardboard ballots were fed through a tabulation computer.
Election challenges arising out of the 2000 presidential race — who can forget “hanging chads” and “pregnant chads” — resulted in congressional mandates to abandon punch card voting.
Most counties have switched to scanned ballots. There are several different scanned voting systems, but Thurston County uses an “optical scan” ballot. Voters color in a bubble next to a candidate’s name and the computer scans those ballots and adds up vote totals.
Markings on those ballots have raised serious questions whether an individual’s ballot can be tied to that specific voter, thus violating every voter’s right to a secret ballot.
It’s a legitimate concern — and one that must be answered by the court.
Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman makes a convincing case why secrecy protections are not compromised.
She reminds voters that they return three items to her office: the mailing envelope, the security envelope and tucked inside that, the actual ballot.
The mailing envelope does have a unique bar code. The code on that outer envelope is scanned by election officials and the voter is credited with casting a ballot. That bar code prevents a voter from casting more than one ballot.
At the start of the tabulation process, the mailing envelope is separated from the security envelope and ballot. At that point, Wyman said, there is no way to tie an individual to a specific ballot.
There are no identifying marks on the security envelope. There are marks on the ballot themselves. Wyman calls them “timing marks.” Some observers might confuse them with a bar code.
Wyman explains that the timing marks identify ballots by precinct — Lacey 33, group 1, for example. That mark tells the computer that the voter is in a specific congressional district, a specific county commission, port, school and fire district.
“But those timing marks are not unique to that ballot,” Wyman explains. Every voter in that precinct would have the same timing marks on their ballot. So the entire precinct — 300-400 ballots — would have the same timing mark and no way to select an individual voter.
The exception would be a precinct where, for example, half the voters are in the North Thurston school district and half are in the Olympia school district. In that case there would be different timing marks on those two batches of ballots, but again by group, not individual.
“It is truly a secret ballot,” Wyman said. “There’s no way to tie a voter to a specific ballot.”
That’s the case in Thurston County.
Other counties use a different scanning system and it’s the votes of those 1 million Washington residents that is the subject of the lawsuit in the Supreme Court.
Reed’s election supervisor, Nick Handy, staunchly defends the vote tabulation system saying, “The litigation brought by four voters and the Green Party of San Juan County specifically talks about the counties that use Hart Intercivic optical scan voting systems. The Hart system has been approved by both state and federal regulators, and you can bet they would not permit any compromise of ballot secrecy. We expect to prevail if this matter is actually heard by the Supreme Court.”
Handy said: “Without the bar codes, the equipment would not know which candidate races were printed on the ballot, and therefore would not be able to determine which candidates had received votes. The bar codes are unique to each election.”
He stresses that bar codes are to identify which subdistricts — school district, fire district, etc. — the vote comes from. “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. 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.”
But Knoll Lowney, the attorney who brought the legal challenge, said, “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. He noted that a second system, VoteHere, “never has been subject to certification by the state of Washington.”
With these sharply conflicting views of ballot bar codes and how they are used to track voters, it’s imperative that Supreme Court justices do a thorough review and determine whether ballot secrecy has been violated.