Awfully QR to Me: New Barcode on Crow Wing Ballot Raises Concerns


[Image via visualead]

It starts off like an A word, as anyone can see/But somewhere in the middle it gets awfully QR to me. – “ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ”, Sesame Street

Very often, problems arise in elections because ballots don’t get enough scrutiny – in preparation, layout or when in the voter’s hands.

That’s not the case in Minnesota’s Crow Wing County (Brainerd), where a small change to the county’s ballots led to an interesting challenge at a recent meeting. The Brainerd Dispatch has more:

A Crow Wing County resident Tuesday raised concerns about whether a barcode on his ballot could contain identifying information.

Charlie Makidon of Gail Lake Township told the county board during open forum he believes the primary election ballot he received by mail is “marked” by a QR code printed at the bottom.

“To 99 percent of the people, this is a marked ballot,” Makidon said. “What does the code say? Does it say, ‘Republican, throw it away?’ Does it say, ‘Democrat, count twice?'”

Makidon said he called the county Monday for more information on the code, which is a type of machine-readable barcode that can store website URLs, phone numbers, email addresses and other alphanumeric data. The codes have proliferated in recent years, along with smartphone apps allowing users to acquire the information they contain.

It turns out that the code is part of a new method in use in the county to send and scan ballots:

The code, [Administrative Services Director Deborah] Erickson told the board, is a numerical voting precinct identifier, assigned to indicate the ballot style required for that precinct. Although this is the first year a QR code specifically was used for the precinct identifier, Erickson said a state rule requires optically scanned ballots to include an electronically readable identifier.

“These ballots have always had this identifier, in a different way,” Erickson said. “It wasn’t this visible QR code as you see here.”

Erickson said the use of the code came as part of contracting with the specific vendor the county is using for mailing its ballots. The code allows the vendor’s mailing machine to read and sort the ballots to determine their destinations. In 16 of Crow Wing County’s 64 voter precincts—including Gail Lake Township, where Makidon lives—voting is done exclusively by mail. This translates to about 5,000 voters.

“In order for us to be the most efficient, make sure our accuracy is correct [in] getting the right ballots to the right voters, we contracted with a vendor to do that initial mailing for us this year,” Erickson said.

The director went on to try to alleviate concerns about the code, though the citizen who raised the issue remains unconvinced:

Although the QR code itself is for mailing purposes, Erickson said it would be printed on all ballots, including those completed by absentee or walk-in, specifically to avoid identifying those done by mail. Each code will be exactly the same as those on all other ballots in a given precinct, she added.

Commissioner Paul Thiede asked how voters could know for sure there was no identifying information within the QR code.

“If someone is suspicious that there is information on that QR code that they don’t know is there, how do they check whether or not you have the integrity there that they desire?” Thiede asked.

Erickson said voters could do their own testing with a smartphone to see the the code returns only the numerical code assigned to each precinct, which is also printed directly below the code and in a second place at the bottom of the ballot.

“We can give them a list of what the precinct styles are, or they can certainly go online to see what their ballot information should be, so that they know that that precinct number would match,” Erickson said.

“No QR code can have unreadable information on the back of the code?” Thiede said. “Every QR reader can read all of the information that is there?”

Erickson said in their own testing, they’ve experienced two responses from various QR code reader apps. One response shows the number as printed directly below the code. The other response, she said, was for the reader to state the code was invalid, while also displaying the number.

“They all returned the data information,” Erickson said.

Makidon said it was unreasonable to expect every voter in the county to have access to a QR code reader.

“You have senior citizens, you have everyone from the age of just turned 18 all the way up to 100-plus years old in this county,” Makidon said. “The issue is there is a mark on the ballot that identifies it. If it was an English-language marking of some sort, that could be readable by everyone else, it would be a different story.”

Makidon said he would bring the issue to officials beyond Crow Wing County if necessary.

The office is also reaching out to voters to explain the new ballots, including the QR code:

Erickson said her office was working on voter educational information to ensure voters were aware of changes to the ballot. She said the QR code was one of two noticeable changes to ballots for Crow Wing County voters this year. Another change in state rules required the ballot be printed in mixed upper- and lowercase letters, as opposed to previous years when the words on ballots were entirely uppercase.

A news release issued later Tuesday afternoon explained the changes and included information on absentee ballots, which are available for the Aug. 9 primary election through Aug. 8.

Here’s the relevant part of that release:

Erickson further commented that voters will notice two noticeable changes on their ballots this year. A new rule change this year now requires the ballot text to be in upper and lower case to make it more easily readable. Additionally, voters may notice a QR code in the lower right column of their ballot with a hyphenated number directly below it. This code corresponds to the precinct name of the ballot, and if scanned returns only the number that’s printed below the code.

A QR code, abbreviated from Quick Response Code is a type of barcode which consists of black square dots arranged in a square grid which can be read by an imaging device such as a camera or scanner. The code is a machine-readable optical label that contains information about the item to which it is attached. Today, most smart phones have the capability to have an app which reads any QR code.

“Minnesota rules require all optical scan ballots to have an electronically readable precinct identifier on every ballot,” Erickson stated. “This data has always been on the optical scan ballots in the past, but this is the first year it appears as a QR code which may raise questions for voters.” Erickson further noted that the code only contains the precinct number and is the same for all ballots in a precinct. “There is no voter specific data associated with the code, only precinct information to make sure that voters receive the correct ballot for their precinct.”

I’ll be curious to see what, if any, response Mr. Makildon gets from raising the issue elsewhere; though unless there is some mismatch between the code and the ballot it’s hard to see the county’s new approach being a real problem.

Still, this story does highlight the importance of being prepared to explain any change to elections thoroughly and clearly – while most voters don’t scrutinize won’t (and don’t) scrutinize their ballots as closely as this voter did, it only takes one for an issue like this to arise.

I’ll keep an eye on this one to see if it goes anywhere else … stay tuned!

1 Comment on "Awfully QR to Me: New Barcode on Crow Wing Ballot Raises Concerns"

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