Sunday, July 26, 2009

To Be Counted or Not

Legislation aimed at spurring states to do a better job of tracking absentee ballots was headed for House consideration last Tuesday.

The bill (H.R. 2510) would create a grant program to reimburse states for costs associated with establishing an absentee ballot tracking program for federal elections. The bill amends the Help America Vote Act by requiring the Election Assistance Commission to reimburse any state that chooses to implement an absentee ballot tracking program. The state would receive $3,000 for each jurisdiction in the state that conducts the program.

Under the absentee ballot tracking program, absentee voters would be able to confirm online whether the election office received their absentee ballot, whether the ballot was counted and if not counted, the reason why. If an election office does not have a website, they can use a toll-free number to allow absentee voters to obtain the information regarding their ballot. The bill authorizes appropriations as necessary in Fiscal Year 2010 and each succeeding fiscal year.

According to a study conducted by the Overseas Vote Foundation, more than half of surveyed military and overseas voters who tried to vote absentee by mail in the 2008 election were unable to do so because their requested ballots either were received too late to be counted or were not received at all. Washington already employs ballot tracking technology. Currently, if any absentee voter would like to find out the status of their ballot, all they have to do is call their respective County Auditor’s Office. The County Auditor’s Office will be able to tell the voter if their ballot was counted or not and why.

In order to qualify for the grant funding, states must have tracking systems that allow voters to confirm whether their absentee ballots for federal elections have been received and counted. Washington State does employ this technology. Washington’s Secretary of State is currently in a lawsuit over the use of this technology. Here is a FAQ on barcodes and ballot secrecy in Washington.

Twenty-one of the thirty-nine counties in Washington use voting systems manufactured by Hart InterCivic. The Hart system uses serial numbers on ballots as a way of preventing the same ballot from being counted twice. In the Hart system, the ballot is not linked to the voter in any way, but if the system receives a ballot with the same serial number twice, it knows not to count it the second time. In other words, it recognizes that the same ballot has been input more than once. The number is not linked to the voter and cannot be used to identify who cast the ballot. It can also be used to verify that the ballot was issued through the county’s system, and thus screens out counterfeit or “look alike” ballots. The bottom line is that since those numbers are not linked to voters, they cannot be used to identify voters.

Some Washington counties use a ballot tracking system that originated with the VoteHere company, and for which the current vendor is VoteTrust. This system uses a serial number (either the Hart number, if the county also uses Hart, or a random unique number, if the county does not use Hart) to track the ballot through the process of receiving, verifying, canvassing, and counting ballots.

As currently used, this system does not save any connection between the ballot and the voter. It does not identify the voter and the ballot, but is simply used for reconciliation purposes. The counties using the system use it to identify which ballots are mailed out, and which of those ballots are returned and counted. This assures that only valid ballots are mailed out and that only ballots produced by the county are received back and tabulated (so that nobody can introduce a counterfeit ballot into the system at tabulation). They are also used, at least in “Hart” counties, to assure that no ballot is counted twice.

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