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Crow Wing County Board: Ballot barcode draws questions

Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson demonstrates what scanning the QR code on a Crow Wing County ballot yields. The code came up during Tuesday's county board meeting, when a resident voiced concerns about whether the code could contain identifying information about voters. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch

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.

An employee in the administrative services office first directed Makidon to call the Minnesota Secretary of State's office, who then redirected Makidon back to Crow Wing County. Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson, whose office is in charge of elections in the county, called Makidon to discuss the matter. Erickson told Makidon the employee had erred in directing him to the secretary of state's office.

The code, 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 of getting the right ballots to the right voters, we contracted with a vendor to do that initial mailing for us this year," Erickson said.

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.

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.

"As occurred in 2014 with the law change, voters no longer need an excuse to vote by absentee ballot," noted Erickson in the release. "All voters are now afforded the opportunity to cast their ballot either at the polls or before election day as they choose."

Visit www.crowwing.us/absentee for an absentee ballot application. Voters may choose to apply online, or download and mail an application to the elections office. Additionally, the elections office will be open for in-person absentee voting from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday, except legal holidays, as well as 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Aug. 6.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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