Ballot secrecy envelopes scrapped – Hasso Hering


A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

Ballot secrecy envelopes scrapped

Written May 7th, 2016 by Hasso Hering
I'm not sure I like the concept of an "optional secrecy sleeve."

I’m not sure I like the concept of an “optional secrecy sleeve.”

Something happened to the concept of the secret ballot. It is no longer guaranteed. “Really?” you ask? Well, that’s the way it looked to me when I got my Benton County ballot for the May 17 primary.

Back in the day, nobody could tell how you voted because once you dropped your completed ballot in the box at a polling station under the watchful eyes of those ladies, there was no way to connect it with you. After we went to voting by mail, officials tried to guarantee secrecy by supplying special envelopes. You signed the mailing envelope so the elections office could tell it came from a registered voter, but your actual ballot inside was hiding in the “secrecy envelope” which, once separated from the mailing envelope, was anonymous and untraceable.

Oregon Secretary of State Jeanne P. Atkins refers to this in her online description of Oregon’s system: “Voters … receive an official ballot to complete and insert into the security envelope which is placed in the ballot return envelope and signed by the voter.”

So imagine my surprise when I finally opened my primary ballot mailing. No secrecy envelope. Instead, an “optional ballot secrecy sleeve.” On this sleeve, which lacks a flap to seal it, there’s advice: “You may use this secrecy sleeve but it is not required. Elections staff will ensure the secrecy of your ballot.”

Of course all our elections workers are honest. None of them would ever, while processing the incoming ballot mail, see a familiar name and think: “Wonder how she voted,” and sneak a quick peak as the ballot tumbles out. And certainly nothing worse would ever happen either, such as agents of a political machine making sure some ballots disappeared depending on how they were filled out.

No, it wouldn’t happen, so you are supposed to be at ease with the advice that “elections staff will ensure the secrecy of your ballot.”
If that’s so, one wonders, why did we have all those procedures intended to make sure nobody could tie your completed ballot to you? (hh)

23 responses to “Ballot secrecy envelopes scrapped”

  1. Mike Martin says:

    Hasso, Linn Co ballots had the old secrecy envelope. Why the difference? You would think that something like this should be standerized throughout the State.

  2. centrist says:

    The secrecy envelope always seemed superfluous to me. But then, I trusted the County Clerk to run a tight show. The process was so revolutionary that security included belt and suspenders. Frankly, Oregon is so far from being vulnerable to the ballot frauds of legend that this minor change doesn’t really affect security.

  3. HowlingCicada says:

    I was one of those who re-registered near deadline so I could have a Republican ballot. I got both R and non-partisan Benton County ballots, as I heard was happening statewide, on OPB radio. The R ballot came with the old sealed secrecy envelope; the non-partisan one (which has no contested positions) came with the sleeve.

    Agree, somewhat disturbing. RINOs get a secret ballot, but DINOs don’t? ;-)

  4. Bob Woods says:

    Well I guess the elections office can rest easier knowing that you voted for Bernie, Hasso :)

  5. hj.anony1 says:

    Rich with follow-up story leads! First, why the difference between Linn & Benton counties. I highly doubt HH voted for Bernie but why he voted for Trump is a second. Those just to name a couple. I look forward to the reads!

    • Hasso Hering says:

      Follow-up has to wait till assorted officials can be reached on a workday. (hh)

      • Ted Salmons says:

        Wow. If only the rest of our government was as transparent as our “secret ballots” apparently are now. Lies, dammed lies and politician lies.

  6. Hasso Hering says:

    Tony White sent this email:
    I oppose convenient voting. The privilege of voting should require the voter to prepare him/herself by studying the candidates and issues. Vote by mail and the “motor voter” registration system only encourage the ignorant and apathetic (but who cares?).
    Secrecy is a joke with vote by mail, since family members can easily coerce one another and oversee the ballot process. The number of duplicate ballots received and/or disposed of makes a travesty of the process. And now the elimination of the privacy envelope drives the final nail in the coffin which used to be a ballot box.
    If a person is unwilling to take a few minutes to go to a local polling place, (s)he should be recognized as an unwilling voter who does not recognize the value of a priceless freedom.
    The ballot sleeve/envelope removal is just the most recent vestige of what has become a quaint tradition.

    • centrist says:

      Convenient voting — I remember looking at voting as both a duty and as a social activity at a local Grange Hall. We got to meet folks who lived well away. Frankly though, I came to appreciate the opportunity to review my notes at the dining room table while marking my ballot.
      Secrecy — I don’t see any change in the effect of family coercion. I do remember watching ward-heelers outside polling places putting the evil-eye on folks as they approached ( and who tried to catch the counters on the machines). That 1950s memory doesn’t happen with our system.
      Let’s remember that what is important is the act of rendering an opinion. What’s not important is following a ritual.
      Dang it VOTE. People in my Dad’s generation sweat, bled and, died for our right to vote. The alternative was ugly indeed

    • Nommel says:

      So Hasso, Tony White opposes convenient voting?

      Does he also oppose the convenience of driving a car over riding a horse? Air conditioning? Cell Phones? email? Online shopping? Cable TV? Grocery stores?

      I mean after all if a person is unwilling to take the time to jump in a river to cool off. Then rifle through the yellow pages to call around on a land line to price rabbit ear antennas, then grab his (high)horse from the barn and saddle it up so he can drop a letter off at the post office and trot on over to Best Buy in Salem to get the antenna. Then swing by Coastal farm on his way to the Interstate 5 trail to buy some vegetable seeds to plant his next produce crop. He must not recognize the value of the priceless integrity he has lost as a result of his hypocrisy.

      His criticism of others who are completely capable of making ballot choices whether it is home or in voting booth only suggests that he has so few problems in life that where fellow citizens vote can be such a crisis.

      Personally, I hope voting can eventually be conducted online. Thus eliminating two unnecessary trips to the mailbox. :-P

      • Tony White says:

        P: Your examples are non-sequitur. None of them involve a duty (voting) for which preparation is required and much benefit to self and society accrues. I don’t consider to have lost integrity by preparing to vote but I do see many who vote unprepared. It is not those who do prepare and then vote at home who I criticize, but those who do not and vote merely because it is easy and “convenient.” And there are many in our state. consider our Secretary of State who bragged of “800,000 new voters” who were awarded registration with no effort whatsoever. It’s not I who have lost the integrity, it’s those who vote with ignorance. Let ’em stay home, or at least, resist putting the stamp on the envelope (maybe we should make them postage free… after all, it’s like a poll tax).

      • Bill Kapaun says:

        We can only guess what YOUR criticism means.
        My guess is DUMB.

  7. Shawn Dawson says:

    Ours had sealable secrecy ballots. Not sure if they said optional or not, but I do recall licking and sealing.

    I agree though, they absolutely are necessary, and should remain sealable.

    -Shawn Dawson

  8. Bob Woods says:

    If you stop to think about it from the elections folks working in the office, a couple of things come to mind:

    1) A sleeve takes less time to remove one of thousands of ballots being processed to put it in a pile to be counted, than opening a sealed envelope, where the ballot can be potentially damaged.

    2) Probably more than a few people forget to even use the secrecy envelope.

    • Shawn Dawson says:

      Hi Bob,

      I understand your two points. However, neither concern is sufficient reason to discard the vital concept of a secret ballot. Secret ballot is a key component of the democratic process, and can not be discarded for reasons of convenience.


      • Seth says:

        I agree 100%. I understand the increased efficiency in processing, but the integrity of the process is simply too important to in any way compromise. I was very disappointed to see my Multnomah County ballot arrive with only this “secrecy” sleeve.

        I’ve always been proud of how well designed my state’s vote-by-mail system is. This is a step backwards, in my opinion.

    • Rebecca Landis says:

      Perhaps the envelope always was optional. In a recent election I messed up and sealed my ballot in the outside envelope. They said it would not invalidate, but they gave me the option of going to the courthouse to fix it. I think I did.

      • Seth says:

        Yes, it was always optional, and ballots are still processed whether or not they arrive with the secrecy envelope/sleeve. The important thing, in my opinion, is that there be an option for the voter to be confident in maintaining the secrecy/anonymity of their vote if they wish. Providing a sealed inner envelope does that, while the new sleeve does not.

  9. Shawn Dawson says:

    Forgive my passion here, but this is important.

    Imagine if the U.S. were monitoring an election in a third world country, and it was seen that ballots were not secret. This would be unacceptable. The situation is ripe for abuse — including persecution of individuals based on who one votes for, and suppression of votes.

    If it is unacceptable there, it is unacceptable here.

    • Bob Woods says:

      So what is the real difference between a licked envelope vs. a sleeve? Both are taken out of the outer envelope after the signature has been processed and validated. Then either the envelope is opened and the ballot removed, or the ballot is slid out of the sleeve.

      The existance of saliva does not guarantee secrecy.

      What is missing here is the understanding of the process being used in the elections office that maintains secrecy. Why not find that out first before you jump to conclusions that the sanctity of the ballot is at stake?

      • Hasso Hering says:

        If somebody wanted to inspect ballots to see how a person voted, it could be done no matter what safeguards are employed. But in practice, it’s unlikely the envelopes or sleeves or their absence makes a difference because when thousands of ballots come in, they are removed from the mailing envelopes after the signature check and immediately become part of a big pile of ballots. Still, Linn County Clerk Steve Druckenmiller told me Monday he will keep supplying secrecy envelopes. Whether voters use them is up to them. He thinks about eight counties, evidently including Benton, got rid of the envelopes and supply the “optional” sleeves instead. (hh)

      • Shawn Dawson says:

        The difference between sealed and unsealed makes a huge difference in the security of vote by mail.

        In the very old days, letters were sealed with wax. The wax ensured that the letter was not opened except by the intended recipient.

        The outer, signed envelope does not do that, as it conveys the signature, and thus does not secure the secrecy of the ballot.

        I do now know the process involved in counting the ballots, but to ensure secrecy it should be a two step process.

        Step 1) the outer envelope signature is checked, then opened and the inner sealed envelope placed into the pile of sealed, unopened envelopes.

        Step 2) the pile of sealed envelopes is then opened.

        If the process is such that both envelopes are opened at the same time, then this is wrong, and is a flaw in the procedure and should be changed.

        The purpose of the two step process and the sealed inner envelope would prevent the connection of a person with their ballot. Without the seal, the ballot could be inspected and returned to the envelope with no one knowing. This would be very bad, and a serious flaw in our voting process.

        -Shawn Dawson


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