Smart Technology Helps Virginians Track Their Ballots

By Arianna Coghill

September 17, 2020

“Intelligent” barcode lets you follow your absentee vote like an Amazon package.

NEWPORT NEWS — Registrars across the commonwealth will mail thousands of absentee ballots today. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has voters concerned those ballots won’t reach them in time. Beyond that, some question the security of the system in general. Fortunately, a new system being used by the state helps address both issues.

“The combination of a presidential election year and a pandemic is something none of us have ever experienced,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in a Tuesday press conference. But, the governor also wants voters to know that the state is ready for the 2020 General Election.

Because of the pandemic, the Virginia Department of Elections is preparing for a surge of absentee votes- both by mail and in-person. So far, 796,000 voters have requested absentee ballots this year. That’s over 200,000 more requests than the entire 2016 election. And the Department expects even more to come.

But, due to this increase, voters are worried about their votes arriving late. Election Coordinator Lisa Dunn has seen this voter anxiety firsthand at the Newport News Registrar’s Office.

“This year we’ve had a lot more voters calling in, worried about sending stuff through the mail because there’s been a lot of media coverage about the USPS and everything happening in Washington,” said Dunn. “Voters are concerned that their votes will not be received in time.”

Well, voters have no fear. The Department of Elections has it covered. As a security measure, every absentee ballot envelope has a tracking number, called an “intelligent barcode”, that voters can use to see where their vote is going at every step of the delivery process.

“I want Virginians to know your vote is safe and it will count,” said Northam. But how do intelligent barcodes work? We talked to registrars across the state about what voters need to know about these codes. 

How do intelligence barcodes work? 

The intelligent barcode is a unique 65-digit code on your ballot’s envelope that allows you to track where your vote is. Not sure if your vote is in the mail? The barcode will tell you where your vote is during the delivery process.

“The intelligent mail barcode that’s on the outside of the outgoing envelope, it’s scanned by the USPS Hub,” said Dunn. “It’s shows the voter on a program we give them called Ballot Scout that their ballot has been mailed and is on their way to them.”

After the registrars’ office scans your vote, you can sign into Ballot Scout to check its progress. Dunn says to think of the barcode like a tracking number for an Fedex or Amazon package.

“After they submit their vote, they can login into Ballot Scout, which is a program through Democracy Works. All they have to do is enter their full name and their address where they’re having the ballot delivered,” said Dunn. “And it will come up line by line where that ballot is.”

Intelligent barcodes are nothing new to elections. Cities, like Newport News and Richmond, have been using Ballot Scout for years. According to Dunn, her city registrar’s office has been using the app since 2018.

How long will it take for ballots to arrive?

According to Ballot Scout, ballots usually reach their destination in two to five days. Should you expect any delays in getting your ballot? Richmond General Registrar Halle Cullison says no.

“We can’t speak for the post office, but on (the registrar office’s) end, everything has been sent out on time,” said Cullison. However, if you do notice your ballot taking a little longer to arrive, give your registrar’s office a call,” said Cullison.

If your vote’s arrival is taking longer than expected, Cullison suggests calling your local registrar.

“I do recommend reaching out to your registrar to see what they have to say,” said Cullison. “And then if the registrar is at a loss, then you should reach out to your post office.” If the postal service can’t fix the problem, the registrar’s office can reissue another ballot. 

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