Friday, October 29, 2010

Your Whatcom County Ballot

Some years ago, I wrote an interesting article published by an excellent (but now defunct) local weekly on the problems with Whatcom County's ballot and the tabulation of votes. The editor and publisher of that weekly was John Servais, who has published for years the longest running and most well-read all-electronic news outlet in Whatcom County.  I had at that time decided to organize my own PAC and attempted to co-ordinate four candidates whom I considered progressives to run together.  These candidates were all serious "grass roots' types who had been active in the community; some of them for years. I really wasn't sure exactly what I was doing, but I had come to seriously believe that there was deep corruption in the city and county governments of Whatcom County after fighting what seemed like a long and torturous battle to remove narcotics trafficking from my neighborhood. (But that is a another story...)

To continue....The ballot counts for vote by mail elections come in batches over a period of days. The auditors were not then (and probably are still not) allowed to count ballots before election day after the closing of the election. So I dutifully pulled up a spreadsheet and began to segregate 'per reported batch' the percentage of votes for the candidates I had supported. What I saw shocked me. My candidates were all underdogs. They trailed in early voting, but as the batches came in, at least two showed promise of either winning of making it to the second round of voting. And then, just when some promise was being shown, their percentages of votes in subsequent rounds all tailed off in seemingly neat, parallel curves leaving their opponents to win.

This provoked me to carefully examine my ballot, the Sequoia voting machines, the Whatcom County Auditor, and the integrity of "Voting by Mail."  Everything that I found scared and shocked me.  I went so far as to visit the County Auditor and review the lists of disputed ballots, requested and received technical specifications for the Sequoia voting machines, and talked with the head of elections in Whatcom County. He was a very nice man, but of course, my article had caused some backlash and he cautioned and complained to me about creating "lack of faith in government".  Actually, I understood his complaint. This is a small county, voting regulations and practices are largely state determined, HAVA was just being implemented,  and as the electioneering head pointed out, they hadn't even given him enough funds to put a card-key lock on the voting machine room door!

The Whatcom County Auditor's Election Division was sensitive to quite a bit of my (and other) criticisms that they could respond to and they did make changes. No longer was the "printer's code" attached to your mailed in ballot. That removed a possible globally unique identifier from a tabulated ballot.  They also made it a point to tell their electorate to use only black or blue ink.  This, was a significant reform. You see, the electronic equivalent of "hanging chads" is a phenomena known as "bleed through".  In "bleed through", a mark on one side of your ballot is pressed or inked too heavily and so it can be seen by the vote counting scanner as an "ambiguous mark" (or quite possibly just a mark) on the other side of the ballot whose "completed" arrows too closely align. This was a terrible problem for the election I was PACing in - literally hundreds of ballots had to be "manually reviewed" because of "bleed through". I was let into the ballot storage room and reviewed the page on each ballot box where "bleed throughs" had been marked as unreadable by the Seqouia voting machines or the ballot reveiw process and thus sorted out for manual review by a select committee.

Unfortunately, our ballot for this general election still has closely aligned "arrows" that match up from one side to another. Try this:

  • hold your ballot up to an open  lighted window
  • correlate  the "arrows" on one side of your ballot that align with the reverse side such
  • that competing marks may be become scanned votes for an entirely different issue or candidate
On my ballot, I see this:
How close do your candidate selections on one side match the initiative selections on the other?

 Let's hope The Sequoia 400C Optical Scanners don't have any ambiguity with these completed arrows on my ballot!
A number of initiative votes line up with possible candidate selections on the reverse side on my ballot. I can't see any physical need for this possibility on our ballot. The printing process could be aligned to make sure the "arrow columns" on both sides do not subsequently run down the same center of our ballot. But unfortunately, they do. For my ballot, this means that a (sloppy or hard pressed) no vote for 1053 could mean a yes vote for John Koster. A yes vote for 1082 could mean a yes vote for Pat Jerns. A yes vote for 1098 could mean a yes vote for Kelli Linville, and so on...

The only advice I can think to give you on this dear voter, is to be careful when you mark your ballot.  Perhaps pull off the removable printing tab and experiment first with your available selections of blue and black ink pens to find find out which weapons of choice "bleeds through" the least. Then use a ruler to complete your arrows, pressing only as hard as necessary to make a legible mark in exactly the center of the arrow!  But don't press too soft, otherwise it may not be read! 

My last bits of advice for completing your ballot are as follows:

(1) Don't spill any food or water on it. The machine or process will kick those out.
(2) Don't spill any blood on it (yes, I saw a record indicating a ballot was rejected for this...)
(3) If you have the time, bring the ballot directly to the Whatcom County Elections desk. And here is why I say this...

There will be a nice box for your ballot there. You can get an "I voted" sticker or two and you will know that no intermediary (local party member, the post office, agenda driven spook, etc.) had any possibility of intercepting your ballot on the way to the Auditor's office.

This last piece of advice may be far more important than most would imagine. Emblazoned right there on the front of your sealed "Privacy by Design(TM)" voter envelope is your unique VoterID and PrecinctID, both accessible by anyone who orders (for $10) the voter database on CD. Here is part of my line in the voter database and a few of the corresponding fields. The VoterID and PrecinctID have been bolded by me:

RegistrationNumber VoterID FirstName MiddleName LastName...ResidenceCity ResidenceState ResidenceZipCode PrecinctID
253876     253876 Ryan M Ferris ... Bellingham WA  98227-0444   204 ....

Now here is the front of my "Privacy by Design(TM)" "Secure Ballot System" "Vote By Mail" envelope:

Whatcom County's implementation of "Privacy by Design(TM)" "Secure Ballot System" puts your VoterID and PrecinctID on the front of your "Vote By Mail" envelope.

The election office may scoff at me for this insight. But the chain of security that leads from your voting drop or your post office to your election office may not be secure. This issue is known as the" Chain of Custody" problem and it is well-discussed on the internet. Therefore, dear voter, if you have the time, take a trip downtown and drop off your ballot by hand. This will take one less "insecure chain" out of the "Vote By Mail" loop. Perhaps then all we would have to worry about are the "impartiality" and "security" of those damn vote counting machines...and your election office. Good Luck!!!

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