Croker Sack

"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." — Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956)

Thursday, April 14, 2005

It was only a little peek!

Another strange occurrence in King County's ballot processing was disclosed in The Seattle Times today.

Among the few thousand rejected provisional ballots were some ballot envelopes which had been opened and resealed with tape.

Think about it. Why open the outer and inner envelopes which contain a provisional ballot that hasn't been accepted as having been cast by a registered voter?

If it's not an accepted ballot, then it doesn't matter what is inside those envelopes: The votes on the ballot won't be included in the tabulation.

King County's spokeswoman denies that anything is irregular:

Bobbie Egan, spokeswoman for the county elections office, said the envelopes were opened under standard procedure to determine whether voters had used the ballots appropriate to their home precincts. If a validly cast provisional ballot is from a precinct other than the voter's home precinct, election officials only count votes for those races the person is eligible to vote in.

Most provisional-ballot envelopes didn't have to be opened because notations on the outside indicated what type of ballot was inside.

Egan said workers opened ballot envelopes before determining whether the votes would be counted just far enough to determine the type of ballot and resealed the envelopes with tape. The envelopes were opened in the presence of observers from both political parties, she noted.

"Procedures were followed," Egan said. "We're not hiding anything. This is no smoking gun. This is something that both parties had full knowledge of during the 15-day window after Election Day."

There should be no doubt in any reasonable person's mind that the explanation given by Egan is hogwash. (If there were political party observers who knew what was being done in their presence, they should be invited to stay home and watch soap operas come the time of the next election.)

Until the ballot has been accepted as valid, it simply doesn't matter what precinct's ballot is inside those envelopes.

Only after the ballot has been accepted must the votes on it be counted -- and then it matters if the ballot handed to the voter contains issues or candidates for which the voter isn't eligible to vote.

For example, if a voter went to a polling place in a legislative district other than the one in which the voter is registered to vote, that voter is eligible to vote for the state representative in his own district but not for someone else's representative. After the ballot is accepted as valid, only the votes for issues and candidates that the voter could lawfully cast can lawfully be counted.

So, how can the secrecy of the ballot be protected when the ballot must be examined to ensure that only the votes the voter was eligible to cast are counted?

That's easy. Leave the outer and inner envelopes sealed. Examine the signature and information on the outer envelope. If the ballot is accepted, open the outer envelope -- not the inner envelope -- and write on the outside of the inner envelope the precinct number in which the voter is registered.

At the next stage in the processing, separate the inner envelopes from the outer envelopes. Remove the outer envelopes from the area -- so no one can identify which outer envelope (with the voter's name on it) goes with which inner envelope. Then, open the inner envelopes and write the precinct number on the ballots -- so a ballot from that precinct can be substituted, if necessary, for the one issued to any particular voter.

There was no good reason to take a peek at provisional ballots before they had been verified as having been cast by eligible voters.

There was a bad reason. When looking for votes for a particular candidate in a close election, it helps to know which ballots are voted the way you want them to be voted before you accept or reject those ballots.

One of the reasons our state constitution guarantees "absolute secrecy" of the ballot is to guard against the chance that a person's ballot would be rejected based on foreknowledge of that person's votes.

Article VI, section 6 states:

All elections shall be by ballot. The legislature shall provide for such method of voting as will secure to every elector absolute secrecy in preparing and depositing his ballot.
Someone needs to educate Sheryl Moss of the Secretary of State's elections office. She is quoted in the article as stating:

Sheryl Moss, certification-and-training-program manager for the secretary of state, said neither state nor federal law prohibits opening provisional-ballot envelopes before voters' eligibility is determined.

Provisional ballots have less secrecy than other ballots, Moss said, because election workers are required to verify that the voter's votes are counted only for candidates or issues he or she is eligible to vote on.

Absentee-ballot envelopes, by contrast, may not be opened before the voter's eligibility is verified.

"I would encourage counties to maintain the secrecy of the ballot as much as they can through the whole provisional-ballot process and [take] whatever measures they need to do to preserve as much of the secrecy of the ballot as they can," Moss said, adding, "but it's not a hard and fast rule as to how you handle them."

The administrative rules may not be "hard and fast," but they do (and did) require that provisional ballots be handled in much the same way as absentee ballots -- which would include ensuring the constitutionally required absolute secrecy of the ballot:

AMENDATORY SECTION(Amending WSR 02-07-029, filed 3/12/02)

WAC 434-253-049 ((Special)) Provisional ballots--Processing. When the disposition of the ballot determines that the ballot is to be counted, the ballot shall be processed in a manner similar to an absentee ballot as provided in chapter 434-240 WAC except the outer ((special)) provisional ballot envelopes must be retained separately from the absentee ballot return envelopes. The manual inspection of the ballots as required in WAC 434-261-070 must also be carried out.
[Statutory Authority: RCW 29.04.210, 29.36.150. 02-07-029, § 434-253-049, filed 3/12/02, effective 4/12/02.] (Emphasis added.)

Moss obviously doesn't know beans about election laws. How did she get hired as "certification and training program manager" in the Secretary of State's elections division? Who put her in charge of drafting and implementing administrative regulations governing elections?

If Moss is typical of the quality of personnel available in Sam Reed's office, what good would it do to have the Secretary of State inspect the King County elections office?

Almost every rule has exceptions, but it's looking as though the Secretary of State's office has no one who is an exception to this rule: The least reliable source of information about the laws which govern a bureaucrat's job is the bureaucrat whose job is governed by those laws.


Blogger M said...

Nice work,Micajah. Keep it up. The charade at KC is crumbling, thanks to people like you.

April 18, 2005 10:38 PM  

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