KC Council Trims Reckless Plan

Yesterday, King County Council decided (2007-0328) against both VoteHere's Mail-in Ballot Tracker (MiBT) and any automated signature verification system.

This decision removes, for now, two very bad parts of the executive's reckless plan to overhaul our elections.

The remainder of the ballot accountability and tracking business case, purchasing Pitney-Bowes sorters and bringing that task in-house, is pretty good -- I support that move. Though, my inner penny-pincher wished we'd lease instead of buy.

Please follow the flip, for details, acknowledgments, some observations, and more background info.


As covered before, automated signature verification would replace humans with computers for comparing signature during mail ballot processing. A horrible idea, as confirmed by Whatcom County's recent testing.

We've also covered VoteHere's MiBT before. It's central to Tim White and Allan Rosato's lawsuit in San Juan County. In their county, every ballot is linked back to the voter's id. A clear violation of our constitutional right to secret ballot.

King County does not allow unique barcodes on our ballots. But show stopper issues remain. Michael Alvine's (county staff) briefing at the August CEOC meeting was pretty conclusive: riddled with errors, MiBT's web site feature reduces voter confidence. So much so, the Sec of State, at that time, advised counties to NOT USE the web site feature. Which is the primary reason our council wanted to use MiBT.

The numbers (cost) being thrown around are complete nonsense. The $345,000 for VoteHere discussed in council yesterday is just the tip of the iceberg. There's also a $750,000 set up fee, to copy names from one database to another. And using the system will cost an estimated $1,320,000 per year, as explained below. The costs are so high, that existing counties (customers) have asked the legislature in Olympia for relief (The Olympian, May 29, 2007). Fortunately, that request was rejected.

Every time we've reported that VoteHere's MiBT doesn't actually work, our elections officials have been shocked, shocked, by this news. Alternately, they claim the problems experienced in San Juan County aren't a concern for King County. It's the same product! With the same flaws! Huff's rationale is no different from Huenneken's dismissing *EVERYONE's* conclusion that Diebold touchscreens are fatally flawed: King County is different; we know better.

And of course, it appears that VoteHere is no longer in business. The phones are off. The website is down. Election Trust announced a reseller agreement, which looks more like a buyout. And the investor chat boards have rumors that founder Jim Alder has moved to another startup, along with his core programmers. Leaving the questions: Who will support the product? Who will fix (the obvious) bugs?


It is way too early to declare victory. As I type, I'm told that minions from VoteHere, Dategrity, and Election Trust are meeting with council members, trying to repair the damage.

Everyone in the Secretary of State's Office, from Sam Reed on down, that I've ever talked to, is a huge defender/promoter of VoteHere, the use of unique bar codes on ballots, and ballot tracking. There is no bigger sacred cow for them. They brush off criticism of Premier (nee Diebold), ES&S, Hart/Intercivic, etc. But hackles get raised when anyone criticizes VoteHere.

Executive Sims really wants this. Who knows why? Doesn't matter. He's been convinced that all this chrome is needed for his reckless plan to succeed. So Sims is leaning on members of the council.

Elections Director Sherril Huff, and her staff, really screwed up. The council was pissed. I was very surprised when she confirmed my allegations. Usually they have some spin control in place. (And I thought everyone already knew VoteHere was gone.)

This whole exercise has been very frustrating for me. I like the people I've dealt with. And I know how hard their job is. And I know they're just following orders. And I'm totally cool with disagreement and hashing things out. But things turned a corner these last few months. I just can't abide by the overtly counterfactual information, repeating things we've already debunked. I've been very disappointed.

House & Senate Work Group

On July 12th, 2007, State Senator Eric Oemig (D-45) hosted (sponsored?) a joint House and Senate work session on ballot tracking and accountability. I'm sorry, but it appears the video is no longer available on TVW.

Both Tim White and I were invited to speak. We were joined by many election officials. Tim did a lot better than me. He displayed numerous examples of how VoteHere's MiBT system gives nonsensical information (e.g. ballots shown as counted before being received, answers changing over time).

I relearned that our opponents are much more experienced at sucking all the oxygen out of the room. I also learned that once you have the microphone, don't let go without a fight.

Rep Mark Miloscia (D-30), who has experience with statistical process control (quality assurance), got frustrated when officials wouldn't answer his questions about quality metrics. I helpfully pointed out that each county publishes mail ballot summary reports, which list the fate of each mail ballot.

Then Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey stated that they track 27 different types of mail ballot processing errors. Egads! Stuff like signature challenge, wrong ballot in envelope, etc. (I've met Kimsey before, I really like him.)

I saw Sen Pam Roach (R-31) in action for the first time. Love her or hate her, anyone who underestimates her is making a serious mistake. Turns out she worked for the postal service at some point. So she has serious reservations about mail balloting, based on her first-hand knowledge.

I think it was Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Diepenbrock who enthused about ballot image scanners (another assault on election integrity), saying that projecting the ballot image on the big screen was a great feature. I countered by saying the overhead projectors my old school no longer uses are probably available for $25 surplus.

Bill Huennekens, our vote-by-mail transition manager, declared King County Council's rejection of unique barcodes on ballots to be a political decision. I really wish he'd learn to put the voter's interest, our right to a secret ballot, ahead of his convenience.

Here's my written testimony to the work group, also submitted to our county council yesterday. My positions remain the same.

Ballot Tracking & Batch Accountability

Comments to Work Session, July 12th, 2007

Jason Osgood, Washington Citizens for Fair Elections

(Updated July 18th, 2007)


I live in King County. I work as a software engineer, serve as a poll inspector, and have observed many of events related to election administration. I've been an election integrity activist since 2005.

I'm skeptical of the use of disruptive new technologies and procedures in our elections. I'm in the Hippocratic school of thought: first, do no harm. Given recent experiences with computerized voting and counting nationwide, I advise caution.

I'll relate what I know about my county's ballot tracking and batch accountability systems, the changes that have been proposed, and my recommendations.

Ballot Tracking

Voters use ballot tracking to status of their ballots. Currently, voters can determine

  1. when their mail ballot has been sent to them

  2. when their mail ballot has been received by election services

  3. when their signature has been verified (or challenged)

Batch Accountability

Batch accountability systems are used by election services to track batches (trays) of ballots during mail ballot processing.

The mail ballot processing steps include:

  1. receipt

  2. sorting / batch creation

  3. removing privacy flap

  4. signature verification, outstack challenges

  5. reconciliation

  6. envelope opening, outstack problems

  7. squishing

  8. tabulation

  9. archival

(There may be more. I don't know the ballot and batch handling procedures for manual recounting.)

Currently, batch slips are used to record the events of a batch's life. At the end of the election, a batch accountability spreadsheet is created by entering the data from these slips.

King County's Plans

The reckless plan is to completely overhaul our elections, just before the 2008 presidential election. Two parts of that reckless plan are to replace our current ballot tracking and batch accountability systems with VoteHere's Mail-in Ballot Tracker (MiBT). The rationalization presented is that it'll reduce manual labor.

MiBT is designed to work with a unique bar code on each ballot, which is tied to the voter's id. Just yesterday, King County wisely passed legislation to prohibit unique bar codes on our ballots.

Ballot Tracking

Our ballot tracking is already fully automated. All mail ballots are mailed on the same day. Return receipt and signature verification (credit for voting) is stored in Diebold's DIMS database. Voters can call to check their ballot's status. The actual data is already posted online.

Recommendation: Simple web user interface for voters using our existing systems.

Batch Accountability

King County wants to replace our paper-based batch slips with data capture systems. The manual task of recounting batches will remain. The only advantage of using MiBT would be to reduce data entry at the end of the election and some predesigned reports.

Just like with paper ballots, paper batch slips have many virtues over computerized alternatives.

  1. physical chain of custody, following the batches around

  2. people write notes in the margins

  3. changes and corrections are visible

  4. observers can observe

  5. tamper evident

  6. notice when the paper is missing

  7. carbon copies

Computerized solutions like MiBT could be tampered with, despite access and change logs.

Paper is also much less expensive.

I acknowledge that Excel spreadsheets are suboptimal for data entry.

Recommendation: Continue to use our paper batch slips, create simple forms-based custom data entry application as a front-end for the spreadsheet generation.

Services Business Model

I am very concerned about the services model that vendors are now using. First we buy the systems, we also buy the maintenance and upgrades, and then we pay to use the systems.

The Diebold VoteRemote system Whatcom County is considering charges per envelop scanned and per signature matched.

With the MiBT system King County is considering, we'd pay VoteHere to buy the system, to populate their database (~$750,000), and then per registered voter per election. Assuming 30 cents per voter and 4 elections per year, using VoteHere will cost King County an additional $1.3m per year.


Example of a corrugated plastic mail tray


Here's an image of the sample batch slip I referred to. As you can, it's a pretty good paper trail of the history of a batch. The data on these slips is entered into a really big batch accountability spreadsheet. With VoteHere's MiBT, data entry would be done at a workstation vs from a batch slip. (A very modest labor savings, at best.)

Here's an image of a bunch of batches (trays) of mail ballots on a cart. Batches get moved all over the place. While not being actively processed by humans, they're placed into secure storage.


Thank you to Councilmembers Gossett and Phillips (and staff) for allowing me to speak. I'm told that motions normally do not allow for public input. So this was an exception.

Thank you to Tim White and Allan Rosato. They provided most of the VoteHere related information I shared with the council yesterday.

Thank you to raincity calling for all her hard work. She, much more than me, is focused on VoteHere. She is also the one that got the tip VoteHere went out of business. (Then we visited their office to verify.)

Thank you to the council, for slowing down the trainwreck, even if just a little bit.

The Seattle Times (Keith Ervin), Seattle PI (Gregory Roberts), and Postman on Politics (David Postman) covered this news item. I'm very grateful that our local media continues to cover election administration topics.


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is that your testimony to the King County Council that VoteHere is out of business (or being sold or absorbed or something...) is what derailed the  purchase of the signature verification and Mail-in-Ballot Tracker systems at the very last moment.

These two expensive features were sheer boondoggles in my opinion -- not necessary for all-mail voting -- and having the potential to disqualify valid ballots and decrease voter confidence.

Your role in this sudden change in direction is acknowledged in all three articles you cite.  In fact the Postman on Politics article is entitled, Zappini Strikes: How One Person Makes a Difference.

This was a completely unexpected turn of events -- and extremely welcome.  Kudos to you for all your work on this. I hope it "sticks".

Here's a question.  The KC resolution you link to at the top of this story doesn't reveal anything that I can see about the business plan being changed.  Was there a different resolution, as well?

by noemie maxwell on Tue Sep 18, 2007 at 06:23:32 PM PST

* 1 none 0 *

  • text by zappini, 09/19/2007 07:07:02 AM PST (none / 0)
  Good to know you have as much expertise as you do and that you are on top of this issue.

'Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them? ~ Abraham Lincoln

by Lietta Ruger on Tue Sep 18, 2007 at 08:51:05 PM PST

* 2 none 0 *

by your diligence on this issue. Great work! I first read this news on Postman's site.

by shoephone on Tue Sep 18, 2007 at 10:27:03 PM PST

* 3 none 0 *

  • I one up you by Daniel K, 09/18/2007 11:14:48 PM PST (none / 0)
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