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Ballot Secrecy

Most Frequently Asked Questions

Is how I voted secret?

Yes. Secrecy of the ballot is mandated by Washington State law and is upheld in all elections.

Can how I vote get tracked back to me?

No. No election official can trace a ballot back to a particular voter.

How does my ballot remain anonymous?

The voter places the voted ballot in the inner security envelope, and then places the security envelope in the outer return envelope for mailing back to the County Auditor's Office.

Once the voter's signature on the outer return envelope is verified, the outer return envelope that contains the voter's name and address is opened and separated from the inner security envelope that contains the voted ballot.

Before the inner security envelope may be opened, it is mixed in with many other security envelopes. This allows the ballot to remain anonymous. Only once the security envelope is mixed in with other security envelopes may the ballot be removed. This maintains the secrecy of the ballot.

Is this process observed by any outsiders?

In every county, political party observers are invited to observe the entire election process. You will find more detailed information in "An Observer's Guide to Washington State Elections".

Many counties, including King and Pierce, have public viewing areas for the public and press. For example, King and Pierce Counties have areas that allow any member of the public to observe ballot processing. Election workers separate the outer envelope, which identifies the voter, from the inner security envelope, which contains the voted ballot, and mix the inner security envelopes together to maintain the anonymity of the ballot.

Why don't all voters receive the same ballot?

Each county includes dozens, sometimes hundreds, of government jurisdictions. The jurisdictions have boundaries that meet and overlap in various locations. For example, each county has:

  • Congressional district boundaries;
  • Legislative district boundaries;
  • County council or county commissioner district boundaries;
  • Court of Appeals district boundaries;
  • District Court district boundaries;
  • City boundaries;
  • Port district boundaries;
  • School district boundaries;
  • Fire district boundaries;
  • Sewer district boundaries;
  • Hospital district boundaries.

The boundary lines of these jurisdictions do not line up, but instead begin and end at various locations.

One residence may be located in School District A, while another residence a few blocks away is located in School District B. These two households may be located in the same congressional district, and therefore eligible to vote in the same congressional race, but are located in different school districts, and therefore not eligible to vote in the same school district race.

The location of a voter's residence is pivotal to determining in which jurisdictions the voter is eligible to vote, and therefore which ballot the voter receives. In the example above, the voter in the first residence would receive a ballot that includes an election for School District A, while a voter in the second residence would receive a ballot that includes an election for School District B.

Jurisdictions often have two types of elections: ballot measures and public office (candidate races). Some jurisdictions hold their elections for public office in even-numbered years, while other jurisdictions hold their elections for public office in odd-numbered years.

Why is there a barcode on my ballot?

Where one boundary line ends and another begins often dictates the shape of an election precinct. Voters in one precinct are eligible to vote on one set of ballot measures and candidate races, while voters in the neighboring precinct are eligible to vote on a slightly different set of ballot measures and candidate races, all based on the set of jurisdictions that cover that precinct.

The variations in jurisdictions precinct-to-precinct result in different ballot formats. A county may have dozens, or even thousands, of ballot formats for one election.

Ballots are tabulated on optical scan and digital scan tabulating equipment. The equipment must be able to determine the ballot format for every ballot. Bar codes on each ballot allow the tabulation equipment to immediately determine the ballot format of that ballot, which allows the equipment to correctly read the ballot.

Without the bar codes, the equipment would not know which candidate races were printed on the ballot, and therefore would not be able to determine which candidates had received votes. The bar codes are unique to each election.

I heard that some ballots have a bar code unique to that ballot. Why?

Some Washington counties print a unique bar code or serial number for each ballot. These bar codes or serial numbers do not identify to whom the ballot was issued. Secrecy is maintained when the security envelopes that contain the voted ballots are mixed together. The ballot is not linked to the voter in any way.

Bar codes or serial numbers that are unique to each ballot ensure that the same ballot is not tabulated twice.

Unique bar codes provide a more efficient method for reconciling the number of ballots tabulated, with the number of voters credited with returning a ballot.

Bar codes or serial numbers that are unique to each ballot can also be used to verify that the ballot was issued by the County Auditor's Office, screening out counterfeit or "look alike" ballots.

Since the unique bar codes or serial numbers are not linked to a voter, they cannot be used to identify a voter.

Why is there a barcode on my outer envelope?

A barcode on an outer envelope is similar to a tracking bar code used by a commercial shipping company. The outer envelope contains the voter's name and address. Once the outer envelope is received by the County Auditor's Office, the bar code is scanned to quickly identify the voter to whom this envelope was issued and therefore which voter is returning a ballot.

The use of a bar code is much more efficient and accurate than reading each outer envelope, typing in the voter's name, and identifying the correct voter in the county voter registration system.

Once the bar code identifies the voter in the voter registration system, the signature on the outer envelope is compared to the signature in the voter registration file to verify that the person who signed the envelope was the registered voter.


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Washington Secretary of State
Elections Division
520 Union Ave SE
PO Box 40229, Olympia WA 98504-0229
(360) 902-4180
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