Opinion

Remove barcodes from San Juan County ballots | Editorial

San Juan County should drop its ballot-tracking system until a better system is found. We have a right to cast a secret ballot, a right guaranteed by the state Constitution. While the current ballot-tracking system is well-intentioned, it is possible — improbable, yes, but not impossible — to identify a voter and how he or she voted. And that violates the secret-ballot provision of the state Constitution. How important is a secret ballot? Ask voters in Zimbabwe.

The idea behind ballot-tracking is good. Used to be, you went to the polls, signed the voter register, received a ballot, walked into the voting booth, pulled the curtain, made your choices in secret, walked out and dropped the ballot into the box. Then, you got an “I Voted” sticker to wear on your lapel.

With elections going to vote-by-mail, there needs to be a way to ensure our ballots are received and counted. Ballot-tracking allows voters to track their ballots to the point of tabulation. After the 2000 presidential election, we can see value in that. But such empowerment has come with a price.

The ballot-tracking system in use by San Juan County uses a bar code printed on each ballot. That bar code enables voters and elections officials to chart the ballot’s progress — when received, when tabulated. If a ballot is not accounted for, it can be addressed immediately.

Members of the local Green Party have sued San Juan County, alleging that the use of bar codes puts ballot secrecy at risk and violates state law. The Revised Code of Washington 29A.36.111 states, “No paper ballot or ballot card may be marked in any way that would permit the identification of the person who voted that ballot.”

As for the use of encrypted databases to further protect against linking a voter’s identity to his or her ballot ... well, we all know technology is not fail-safe. Encryption makes linking voters and ballots further improbable, but again, not impossible.

King County is using a system that the local Greens have said they support: Tracking ballots by the outer envelope. With King County’s system, the voter can see when his or her ballot envelope was received, when the ballot envelope signature was approved, when the ballot envelope was sent for tabulation. There are no identifying marks on the ballot. You can watch your ballot all the way to the box, just like the old days. (But you don’t get an “I Voted” sticker.)

King County Councilman Dow Constantine, who introduced the legislation establishing this ballot-tracker system, was quoted in the media as saying, “The right to cast a secret ballot is guaranteed to all citizens by our state Constitution. We must protect this right by ensuring that we accurately track the return of every voter’s sealed envelope, while preventing any chance that the ballot inside could be connected with a particular voter.”

At least two County Council members have expressed concern about bar codes on ballots. San Juan County should drop its ballot-tracking system until a better system is found, or at least adopt King County’s ballot-envelope tracking system.

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