Even in national circles, the King County Elections office has garnered a reputation as a Bermuda Triangle of statewide elections, the place where Republican victories quite simply vanish never to be recovered. Now, a radical interpretation of how provisional ballots can be used that seems certain to open the door to serious controversy in a major election year.
In 2004, it was the infamous triple recount in the Washington state governor’s race between now-Gov. Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi that focused national scrutiny on King County Elections, then under the direction of King County Director of Elections Dean Logan.
Republican voters in Washington state need no refresher on how a a Rossi lead on Election Night was transformed into a Gregoire “victory” several weeks later. Logan’s office oozed ballots at the most opportune times, offering them to the count just when Gregoire’s tally needed a shove to move ahead of her opponent.
In 2012, under the new direction of King County Director of Elections Sherril Huff and with another very close gubernatorial race likely to come down to the wire between Attorney General Rob McKenna and former congressman Jay Inslee, it could be the new process for provisional balloting that draws finger-pointing and cries of foul play.
The issue stems from laws created at the federal level for the purpose of preserving voting rights for overseas and military voters. Previously, voters with those special circumstances have been allowed to cast a provisional write-in ballot by fax, email, or other electronic means, while also mailing in their official ballot postmarked no later than Election Day. The provisional ballot would be counted in the case that the mailed official ballot was not received before the certification of elections; if the official ballot was received, the provisional disregarded.
In this year’s election, King County has decided to open the electronic provisional balloting process to all voters. These ballots are already available for download and it is possible that some voting is already underway more than two weeks prior to the actual mailing of ballots to voters.
The process of obtaining and casting a provisional ballot is simple, perhaps too simple. With only three pieces of information—a voter’s first and last name, and their birth date—a backup write-in provisional ballot can be downloaded any time up through Election Day. The kicker is that King County will allow these ballots to be received and counted until the day before the election results are certified. Sources also tell us that in the case that two ballots are received for a single voter, the provisional ballot could supersede the regular one.
Provisional ballots electronically delivered to King County Elections do not have the benefit of a privacy envelope—voters choosing to cast ballots this way waive their rights to a secret ballot and one has to wonder if these votes would also be discoverable and open to public records requests.
But the privacy concerns are secondary to worries that the new process creates a hole large enough for would-be elections frauders to drive a Democratic victory through.
The information needed to download any voter’s provisional ballot is easily obtained by combining voter roll information and other data sources that might be available append birth dates, ideological behavior and other rich data to a voter file that the political parties, PACs, or campaigns can purchase.
Compiling that amount of data may sound like a lot of work to some, but some are suspecting it may already be occurring.
Washington state voters were informed this year (seemingly without public input) that the Secretary of State’s office launched its Facebook application to facilitate voter registration and other functions. The data independently obtained by Facebook (the social media giant is just a gateway, but think of it more like a full body scan at an airport gate rather than an unattended turnstile), merged with a standard voter file, merged with other data… it’s a brave new world.
Presumably, King County Elections and other county elections offices using this voting process are required to implement procedures to track who is downloading individual ballots by recording IP addresses and archiving server logs.
In terms of fundamental and legitimate ballot chasing efforts, determining which registered voters don’t vote in King County could help to turn out real votes that might otherwise not be counted. It takes a generous reading of this provisional balloting procedure to see that, in terms of reaching out to voters who tend to be disenfranchised, allowing all voters to cast provisional ballots might be a good thing. The potential for ballot identity theft, however, becomes a more and more real concern as personal data becomes easier to obtain. It’s just too easy and too tempting.
Funny business of this sort already struck during the primary election. Republican precinct committee officer races in King County featured a gang of “zombie” candidates—individuals whose names were placed without their knowledge on the ballot to run for the local party spots. King County Republican Chairwoman Lori Sotelo was one high profile targets of one such attempt to sneak a zombie PCO past voters.
The integrity of our elections are a paramount concern and we’ll be keeping an eye on the use of these ballots as the election unfolds, hopefully with the help of our colleagues in statewide media.