I did a double take: For once, there’s a new use for technology that might build confidence in our democracy, rather than tear it down.
Turns out, California isn’t alone. Gearing up for the largest vote-by-mail election in American history, a patchwork of local officials in all but about seven states have invested in some form of ballot-tracking tech. It will be available in the District of Columbia, most of Virginia, Maryland, Colorado and North Carolina and parts of Florida, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon and South Carolina, just to name a few. To find out if you’ve got access where you vote, check out The Washington Post’s handy interactive guide to voting in 2020.
There’s one important thing to know: You need to seek out ballot tracking, either by logging into a website or signing up for alerts — likely separate from registering to vote or requesting an absentee ballot.
For an election marked by confusion and deceit about voting, ballot-tracking tech is a win for truth, justice and the American way. It won’t end all our debates about disenfranchisement and election fraud. But the transparency helps us hold local officials and the U.S. Postal Service accountable. And it can take away some of our own uncertainty about voting by mail.
That includes keeping you out of trouble. “Because you’ll have already received information that your ballot counted, you don’t have to jeopardize yourself committing a felony by voting again,” said Tammy Patrick, senior adviser to the elections team at the nonprofit Democracy Fund.
How does this work? How do you get it? And most of all, is it secure? Here’s a citizen’s guide based on my conversations with election officials and the companies that make ballot tech.
How it works
Given the misinformation flying these days, I want to be very clear: Ballot-tracking websites do not allow you to vote online. Nor do they track who you voted for. That’s nobody’s business but your own.
In the United States, the envelopes containing our mail-in ballots — not the ballots themselves — have numbers on them associated with individual voters. That’s how local officials make sure you’re only sent one ballot, and how they’ll see if you try to vote twice. In many places, those numbers are also embedded in so-called Intelligent Mail Barcodes, which allows the Postal Service to track the coming and going of the ballot envelope.
These codes power ballot-tracking sites. Think of them like the shipping updates you get after placing an online shopping order — except these are delivering democracy. They’re a service of your local election board, though sometimes the sites are lumped together for an entire state. Some places, like Denver, have had a version of it for more than a decade, but a whole bunch signed on or expanded their offerings this year following the pandemic. Business at BallotTrax, the largest service provider for this technology, grew 10 times in 2020.
Since elections are run by local governments, what you get from ballot-tracking sites can vary. Officials who use software from BallotTrax and rival Ballot Scout can potentially provide step-by-step mail tracking and alerts in the form of text messages, emails or even recorded phone calls. Others, like the homegrown Maryland system, around since 2012, are simpler: Just a website you can log in to any time to see if your ballot has been “sent” or “accepted.” In most places, the tracking should work whether you mail your ballot or submit it an official drop box.
For most of us, these services are just a way to know that, yes, even in a bonkers year like 2020, our ballots actually counted. But in some cases, these services help flag something has gone wrong. For example, sometimes people move and forget to update their address; a tracking site will usually flag when a ballot is marked undeliverable. Sometimes people’s ballots get rejected because they forget to sign them — or even, as my colleague Elise Viebeck has warned, because they scribble on the wrong part of the ballot. Depending on your state, a tracking site could note there’s a problem and give you the chance to fix it before Election Day.
Lots of people also forget about mail-in deadlines, and this tech gives counties a targeted way to reach out and let voters who haven’t yet returned their ballots know what they need to do ASAP.
“It’s the most popular tool we offer voters,” said Tim Scott, the director of elections for Multnomah County, Ore., which has offered ballot tracking since 2015. But still, it’s underutilized: About 10 percent of voters there have signed up. “I think that will change this year,” he said.
Election officials also told me the tech lets their understaffed offices run better. “Just helping stop some of the incoming phone calls, that is very helpful,” said Matt Kelly, the absentee voting manager in Franklin County, Ohio.
Officials also get dashboards that help them know when ballots are heading back their way and spot problems, such as a pallet that gets lost in a corner at the post office. It happens.
How you sign up
To find out if you have access to ballot tracking, visit your state or county’s voter website — a good place to start is The Post’s interactive voting guide, which is full of links.
Signing up for a tracking service is remarkably simple for government tech. (You paying attention, DMV?) You don’t have to be a computer or smartphone expert. On a voter portal website, registering usually requires entering a few very simple pieces of information, such as your name, date of birth and Zip code. Sometimes when voters have similar names, the sites might ask for a little bit more, such as a voter ID number or driver’s license number.
The additional information these sites collect to send you alerts, including how to contact you, is usually treated as confidential and can’t be sold, including political parties.
It’s also possible you don’t have access to ballot-tracking where you live. Why not? In some places, mail-in voting has previously been too niche. Others just didn’t have time to set it up before this election. Others don’t have the money. BallotTrax, for one, says its service costs can range from 2 cents to 5 cents per voter.
If your local election board doesn’t have the service — or you just want the fullest picture possible — there’s another free option available to most Americans called USPS Informed Delivery. If you sign up for this service, you can get a daily email with photographs of the mail that’s headed your way. This way, at least, you can know when your ballot is going to arrive and be on the lookout for it.
Is it safe?
There’s reason to believe ballot-tracking is less of a security concern than other election-related systems. But these services could be abused to confuse voters, so there are some things you should be vigilant about.
Both BallotTrax and Ballot Scout say they’ve taken important measures to shore up cybersecurity, including working with outside firms to test and audit their systems and getting help from the Department of Homeland Security.
The best thing they’ve got going for them is that the data they control isn’t particularly valuable. They’re largely built on information from voter rolls that many local governments already make public. (Yes, whether you voted can be public record.) The info that goes into ballot-tracking sites is kept separate from systems that tabulate votes and adjudicate questionable ballots.
But anything connected to the Internet is vulnerable, and we know foreign adversaries are looking for any possible way to sow distrust. Foreign adversaries could try to shut down ballot-tracking websites at important times, or even set up fake ones to lure voters through phishing, said John Sebes, the chief technology officer of the OSET Institute, a nonprofit that helps develop election tech.
And if ballot-tracking sites do get hacked, he said, “they could become a really powerful channel for disinformation.”
In a worst-case scenario, a breached tracking system could be abused to erroneously report to voters that their ballots didn’t count and they need to vote in person. If that happened, voting places could get jammed up on Election Day as they try to sort out who should and shouldn’t vote again.
“It isn’t a very good target because it isn’t going to change any votes,” said Patrick from the Democracy Fund. “But it could potentially change the way in which a voter acts, and whether they think they need to make a remedy on their ballot.”
There’s no evidence of that happening with ballot-tracking in any past elections, knock on wood. And the alternative is voters not getting any information about their ballots at all, which could also undermine election confidence. “I’m a lot more worried about social media misinformation,” said Scott, in Oregon.
Still, it’s a good reminder to be suspicious of any election communication you get on text, email or social media.
One Post reader in Maryland wrote to me about a suspicious-looking email about her mail-in ballot that claimed to be from the state’s election department, but came from an address that ended in “marylandelections.us” rather than the state’s official “elections.maryland.gov.” Turns out that email was legitimate: State officials tell me they use the .us address for bulk email communication.
Now that state and local governments are communicating more online, we all need to adopt defensive communication standards. That includes making all communications come from official .gov addresses, and making it easy for citizens to tell if they are legitimate. California, for one, posts copies of its bulk election emails to its social media accounts, so you can compare your inbox to the real thing.
We have to stay vigilant like democracy depends on it.