Elections dumps controversial ballot-tracker system

The ballot bar code lawsuit, White v. Reed, is now eight years old and does not appear to be ending any time soon.

The lawsuit claims that bar codes on the ballot envelope and on the ballot itself violate the Washington law that 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.”

Multiple motions have been filed, briefed and argued, but the only clear result is that San Juan County is likely to save money by abandoning the Mail-in Ballot Tracking system previously used here.

County Auditor Milene Henley said that after Superior Court Judge Don Eaton decided that the tracking system violated a state law that requires any voting system to obtain federal certification, she decided not to appeal that decision, but instead to abandon the MIBT system, even though Henley insists that the MIBT system did not in any way compromise ballot secrecy.

Not using the MIBT system “would require more staff hours and more expense, so we decided to contract with K&H Printing in Everett to print, assemble and mail the ballots, which may very well save money for the county.”

But will abandoning the MIBT system ensure that voting secrecy will be maintained?

“No,” according to lead plaintiff Tim White and his attorney, Seattle attorney Knoll Lowney. “Yes,” says Henley and her attorney, County Prosecutor Randy Gaylord, and Secretary of State Kim Wyman and her attorney, Assistant Attorney General Anne Egeler.

The case continues to crawl through the courts. Even though White and his co-plaintiffs won on the MIBT system issue, they are appealing the part of Judge Eaton’s decision requiring them to present evidence at a trial that the “unique identifier” bar code on the ballot could be “linked” to a specific voter.

The county, and Elections Supervisor Doris Schaller, say, “There is no possible linkage between the bar codes on the ballot and the name of the voter who voted that ballot.”

Schaller explained that when the mailing envelope (which has the voter’s signature and a unique tracking bar code on it) is received, the election office verifies that the signature matches the voter’s signature, then the mailing envelope and the interior security envelope are opened by two people and separated before the ballot is removed from the security envelope. After the ballot is separated from the mailing envelope and then removed from the security envelope, the ballots are kept under lock and key and cannot be linked to the name of any voter.

The two different “unique numbers” are separately printed on the envelope and the ballot respectively by different computer programs, and the different numbers are never correlated by any person or computer. Absent a nefarious conspiracy by two ballot handlers and the Auditor’s professional staff at the time the ballots are opened, matching the voter name and the votes on the ballot simply cannot be accomplished, according to Schaller.

Tim White is not at all deterred by the steep hill he must climb to remove bar codes from ballots. He said if the current lawsuit, which was originally filed in 2006 and may not be resolved for some months, is not decided in favor of the plaintiffs, he and others are prepared to continue to seek legislative action in the county council, in the state legislature, or by initiative to get the bar codes removed.