Politics Blog

UPDATE: Auditor comments on 'Exposed ballot signatures and illegal voting'

Near the end of this post are included comments made via email on Friday, April 18, by Auditor Debbie Adelstein.

Concerns continue to percolate over the new ballot envelopes the Whatcom County Auditor's Office began using in the 2013 elections. To save money and time, Auditor Debbie Adelstein went with a simpler envelope style that leaves the voter's signature exposed.

The number of complaints have been relatively few -- the auditor as of April 4 had counted 108, or 0.15 percent of all returned ballots from the 2013 general election.

The concern over having your official signature out there for postal workers or anyone who opens your front-yard mailbox to see persists still, almost half a year after the election. County council member Barbara Brenner counts herself among those concerned, as she related to me in a phone conversation earlier this month.

Adelstein has been keeping the council in the loop, but the decision is hers to make, not council's, about which envelopes to use.

The auditor wonders, is that 0.15 percent the tip of the iceberg, and are there hundreds more people out there who are dissatisfied with the new envelopes? She wonders, how to reach out to registered voters to ask if they are concerned without raising even more, unwarranted concern? She said she was open to having the council hold a public hearing, but wouldn't that bring out the naysayers more than people who are fine with the envelopes?

Voters could take steps to hide their signatures, including placing the voting envelope into a larger plain envelope, then mailing it to the auditor's office. If voters are concerned about their ballots being swiped out of their mailboxes, they could take them to the big blue mailboxes on their local curbside. Also, there are eight ballot drop boxes spread around the county. Put your ballot in there, and the only people who will see your signature are election workers -- who need to verify your signature anyhow for your vote to count.

Adelstein recognizes that privacy and identity theft are big concerns these days, but she doesn't believe the signature on your ballot envelope exposes you to any real risk.

"We really don't believe you need to (take precautions)," Adelstein said.

The Elections Department probably has enough of the new, exposed-signature envelopes to get through the 2014 elections, so no changes are planned this year, Adelstein said. She is looking ahead to primary elections in August, when a significant number of ballots will be mailed out, to see if the complaints persist.

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The Auditor's Office has also come up for criticism by a former state resident who said he remains registered at his former Whatcom address after moving to Oregon.

The complainant, Chuck Jessup, sent a spirited email to the Elections Department:

It would seem you have a giant gaping hole in your voter registration database.

I moved to Oregon on around 03/13/2014... just about a month ago.  Yet you still have me registered to vote in Whatcom County and have probably given out my invalid voter information to any number of people, under my old address.  Had the people who now live at my prior address not forwarded some mail from a candidate addressed to me at my old address I never would have thought to even contact you. 

In any event I now wonder how many people you have on your database who should not be allowed to vote in Whatcom County or who vote both there and in some other place(s) as well thanks to the total lack of maintenance being done on the many databases all over the country now days.  No wonder voter fraud is rampant now days.

Good luck cleaning up your act before the pending Nov 2014 election cycle.

So what gives? I asked the auditor if a voter like Mr. Jessup could, in fact, vote in two states for the same election.

"Yes, if they want to break the law," Adelstein said.

Washington participates with 10 states that cross-check voter databases against each other, to try to prevent voters from double-dipping among those states. But until the federal government adopts a voter registry that puts all voters in the nation on a single list, then the Mr. Jessups of the U.S.A. can in fact vote in two states at the same time -- until they get caught, of course. 

"It becomes the voter's responsibility to not do that," Adelstein said.

You wouldn't get away with voting twice within the state of Washington because there is a statewide voter database. However, this wouldn't prevent a voter from moving from Whatcom to, say, King County, and continuing to vote in Whatcom. That could happen as long as the voter lays low and doesn't register in King County, which of course shuts them out of having a voice on Election Day where they actually live.

These are, as Adelstein put it, "worst-case scenarios," that the auditor doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about.

Incidentally, people who move from Whatcom to another country can continue to vote using their last known address indefinitely. An expat in Paris, for example, can use their old Harris Avenue address to vote for mayor of Bellingham 20 years after leaving the country. In fact, Whatcom has a not-insignificant number of former residents now living in Canada who cast ballots for Whatcom, Adelstein said. 

Those moving within the U.S. can avoid the awkwardness of remaining registered at their former residence by telling their county Auditor's Office they are moving. Or, even more simply, a voter moving within the state can update their address at myvote.wa.gov.

Auditor Debbie Adelstein this morning emailed a detailed response to some of the issues raised in this blog post. I reproduce them here in their entirety:

Just to provide some additional information for your readers on the topic of ballot envelopes, our office did not embark on returning to the style of envelopes that for years had been used as absentee envelopes in a lighthearted manner. Thirty-five (35) of the 38 other counties in Washington state had made this move prior to us. And based on the outcomes that they had experienced we decided to make the move as well. (Two of the other three remaining counties will be making that move in the near future.) While there were cost considerations and process improvements realized, we did not flippantly disregard the privacy of the voters. This is the style of envelope that we had used in Whatcom County for many, many years. Whether the signature is covered or not, someone wanting to do nefarious things could just steal any ballot envelope and have that signature! And the risk of that occurring needs to be weighed against the number of times one’s signature is out in the public in many other ways, such as credit card receipts, checks submitted for payment, online purchases, or whatever. The statistics of where identity theft occurs is not on ballot envelopes. As I had stated to you, utilizing secure mail boxes and ballot drop boxes available throughout the county would be an alternative to anyone who has a concern. Leaving any important mail returns in rural roadside boxes probably has not been encouraged for a very long time. The same would be true for ballot return envelopes. 

With regard to your second topic of the individual who had moved and thought we should somehow have known he had done so, I find it pretty ironic that since he did not make any attempt to notify us that he had left Whatcom County, how were we supposed to have guessed that he had gone? And since when we communicated with him he said he did not leave a forwarding address with the post office either, we would only have received his ballot back as undeliverable the next time we had an election since that is a second source we use for updating people’s addresses. The League of Women Voters reported recently that 36 million Americans moved last year – how many remembered to notify their Elections office?

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On an entirely different note, I read an article about how to write a good headline for the Web. Here are three choice quotes for you to think about:

"You have nanoseconds to grab your reader."

"The pen may be mightier than the sword, but nimble fingers sliding across a smartphone’s touch-screen slay all comers."

“Without a good, clear headline, that story might as well have not been written.”

Sobering stuff for journalism, if these statements are to be taken literally.