Can ‘patch’ end ballot flap?

County Elections officials will use a patch on barcodes on local ballots as an additional measure to protect voter identity.

Auditor Milene Henley last week said that a so-called patch will be used by the San Juan County Elections Department as an additional safeguard beginning Aug. 19, with the primary. Henley said the patch, recently endorsed for use by the Secretary of State’s office, further prevents ballots and voters from being linked by concealing the unique, identifying marks which each barcode bears at the time election results are tabulated.

At one time, those barcodes allowed voters to track their ballot through the elections process via the Elections Department Web site. However, flaws in the Ballot-Tracker computer program, coupled with complaints about identifying marks on ballots, prompted county officials to discard that feature several years ago.

Nevertheless, Henley said in a July 15 presentation to the County Council that the barcodes are still an essential tool in helping ensure that voters in various precincts receive the correct ballot, and in accounting for ballots once they’re returned. Removal of the encrypted barcodes altogether would jeopardize the accuracy, accountability and security of the election process, she said.

Members of the local Green Party, whose lawsuit against the county over the barcodes is still pending, claim the patch serves only as a Band-Aid and that it doesn’t erase the possibility that a voter’s identity can be linked to his or her ballot.

Tim White of Orcas Island, who with fellow Green Allan Rosato took the county to court, insists the link remains embedded in the computer files of the Elections Department and that it can be retrieved.

“The patch is meaningless for the issues were concerned with,” he said. “There is no plan to take unique, identifying marks off the ballot, only to mask it.”

Meanwhile, local Greens are seeking to place an initiative before voters that would demand that all identifying marks on local ballots be removed. White said that many counties, such as King and Thurston, are able to effectively account for ballots by putting barcodes on ballot envelopes rather than on the ballot themselves.

“We don’t think this should be about the ability of an auditor to account for votes and ballots,” he said.

Several council members questioned whether the patch is an appropriate fix. In a 5-1 decision, the council agreed to extend invitations to elections officials in King and Thurston counties in an effort to learn more about ballot-accounting alternatives. Councilman Kevin Ranker, San Juan South, said that if the state’s most populated county, King, can account for its ballots without barcodes, then San Juan County, with roughly 10,000 voters, ought to be able to do so as well.

Councilman Alan Lichter, Orcas West, said that all unique, distinguishing marks should be eliminated.

“We now have a huge super-structure sitting on a shaky foundation,” Lichter said. “The simplest procedure would be to leave them off the ballot.”

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