New technology allows voters to track their ballots
By Steven Friederich - The Daily World 01 November 2005
When Grays Harbor County switched to an all vote-by-mail system over the summer, many voters expressed concern that the county might lose their ballots in the mail.
But new technology is addressing those concerns. It allows voters to track their ballots over a Web site, using encrypted identification codes and FedEx-like tracking technology that was developed by Bellevue-based VoteHere Inc.
?It will affirm the fact all the ballots are counted, and for the first time ever we?re going to make sure voters are empowered to not just make sure their vote was just cast, but that it was, indeed, counted,? says Bryan D. Finney, director of government affairs for the company.
County Auditor Vern Spatz said voters might notice a new barcode on the green ballot envelopes. This barcode contains each voter?s encrypted voter identification.
As ballots come into the auditor?s Montesano office, Spatz said workers have been scanning the barcodes. The tracking codes remain scrambled throughout the process to avoid compromising the voters? privacy, he noted.
As of Monday, the county had received about 5,577 ballots out of 34,600 ballots mailed out. Spatz said he expects about a 60 percent turnout for the General Election, although most of the ballots likely won?t arrive until closer to Election Day, Nov. 8.
Each voter can now go to the county?s Web site at www.co.grays-harbor.wa.us. Click on the ballot tracker link; input your name exactly as it appears on the ballot and check the status of your ballot.
Grays Harbor, Pacific and San Juan counties are the only ones in the state participating in the new tracking system. All three tested the system during the primary election. However, Grays Harbor used the experience mainly as practice.
?It was very successful as far as keeping track of the numbers,? Spatz said. ?It?s just the ballots that get scanned ? not how they voted; just the fact that they voted.?
Ballots are released online in batches of 25 or more. It?s not done in real time because someone might be able to link who voted for which candidate on Election Day based on new names popping up online.
It takes two members of the Canvassing Board to release the names online and ensure the voter privacy rights are protected, according to Andrew Berg, VoteHere?s chief architect. He invented the ballot tracking technology.
The Canvassing Board consists of County Prosecutor Stew Menefee, County Commissioner Bob Beerbower and Spatz.
?Internally, we?re going to take the voter?s registration number and take a unique number and put it on each ballot,? Berg explained to the Canvassing Board last week. ?Then we?re going to connect those ? in a database. But we don?t want to just connect it together because then it would be obvious how each unique voter voted.
?So, instead, we?re going to take their voter ID, encrypt that and tie the encrypted voter ID with the ballot number. That has the advantage that they?re still tied together ? But the ballot isn?t open for anybody to look at.?
Berg added, ?Everybody decrypts it together ? sort of like a nuclear submarine ? like how it takes two keys to fire the missile. You both will have done a shuffle to make sure there is no relation between the ballot and the voter.?
Members of the Canvassing Board are watching the process carefully to make sure each ballot continues to remain anonymous, Menefee said.
?What I want to do is protect the integrity of the process,? the prosecutor said. ?There may be a decision made at the Secretary of State?s office that they want Canvassing Boards to be able to identify individual ballots up to a point, but that?s not our decision to make. Right now, what we?re trying to do is automate and increase the accuracy of the system.?
Spatz said, ?At the end of the election, we?ll be able to look at our daily tally figures to see how many ballots came in every day and then we?ll be able to use those figures to get through our system and account for every ballot. We?ll be able to see if they?ve been counted or have been pulled aside for our Canvassing Board to examine.?
County Elections Administrator Julie Smith said the county has discovered about 109 ballots, thus far, that either have signatures that don?t match the ones on record or aren?t signed at all. Smith said the elections office will contact voters to let them know about the problems and ask them to come in to sign their ballot or a new voter registration card.
Spatz said there are 1,858 ballots that have been returned as undeliverable, usually for a bad address. These are not forwarded and if residents haven?t received a ballot they should contact the elections office.
During the 2005 legislative session, lawmakers mandated that a new privacy flap covering a voter?s signatures be placed on the absentee ballot envelope.
The idea seemed good, at first, since it was meant to protect the voter from identity theft, but it started to give auditors major headaches.
Spatz reported last week that some voters are receiving damaged ballots in the mail primarily because the perforated edge of the privacy flap is catching on U.S. Postal Service machines.
Spatz said the situation is not unique to Grays Harbor and that he received the design of the new mandated ballots from both Pierce and Thurston counties.
?It?s too late for us to do anything about the ballots now and I will say that the ballots aren?t getting damaged too often, but some people have reported damaged ballots,? Spatz said. ?We will be redesigning the ballots for next year.?