San Diego Union Tribune

July 2, 2007

Election day tracking

On Election Day, just about one of every four calls that comes in to a county's registrar of voters is about an absentee ballot – typically inquiring whether the office got it. As one might imagine, this can put considerable strain on a region's chief elections official on what's arguably the office's busiest day of the year.

Unless you're the elections official in San Mateo County.

Using the same technology for tracking overnight packages, San Mateo's registrar puts a printed bar code on the envelopes used for absentee ballots. San Mateo's absentee voters can log on to a registrar's Web site using their home address, ZIP code and birth date, then track the status of their envelopes.

Hoping to build on that example, Rep. Susan Davis is trying to move a bill that would require a similar tracking system for all mail-in ballots. The San Diego Democrat wants mail-in envelopes to be stamped with similar bar codes that would allow voters to check the mailing status of their ballot via the Internet or an automated telephone number.

“The one thing voters wish for is verifying if the ballot made it to the registrar,” said Davis press secretary Aaron Hunter. He said the bill is “generating a lot of interest.”

Davis believes the legislation would increase voter participation as it increases voters' peace of mind, Hunter said. Although adding bar codes would cost some money – Davis says it would come to just fractions of a penny per envelope – the bill presumably would save taxpayer money in the long run by eliminating many of the Election Day phone calls that registrars field about absentee ballots.

The bill, introduced in March and now before the House Administration Committee, on which Davis sits, would amend the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the comprehensive election reform legislation written primarily in response to the controversial 2000 presidential election.


Since we're on the topic of springtime legislation just now coming up in congressional hearings, there's also the bill by Rep. Brian Bilbray designed to extend water-quality protections at the nation's beaches that were first introduced seven years ago.

Congress passed the BEACH Act in 2000, a law designed to strengthen water quality standards at beaches, improve public access to beach advisories and closings and improve pollution-control efforts.

The BEACH Act has had significant impacts during the past seven years, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report released in October. The number of monitored beaches – those where water is tested for pathogens and harmful bacteria – rose from 1,000 in 1997 to 3,500 in 2004. In addition, 35 coastal and Great Lakes states now have up-to-date water-quality standards, up from 11 states in 2000.

The Carlsbad Republican's bill – the Safe Water Improvement and Modernization Act of 2007, or the SWIM Act – would extend the BEACH Act until 2012 and authorize the EPA to perform a two-year study that uses molecular testing on water quality.

For the past two decades, the EPA has hunted pathogens in the water using culture testing, which requires 72 hours to yield results. This method, which Bilbray considers archaic, sometimes leads to public beaches being closed unnecessarily or for too long, he said.

Molecular testing could produce results in as little as four hours, Bilbray argued during testimony last week before a Senate subcommittee.

“It is my hope that this study will open the door to quicker and more efficient testing times which will better protect the health and well-being of those that want to enjoy our recreational waters,” said Bilbray, a longtime surfer who has made beach protection a priority.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues. Bethany Leach is an intern for Copley News Service.

 »Next Story»