Privacy Schmivacy

With all of the other flack sailing around the office of the Broward County Supervisor of Elections, the folks there didn't need this: citizens carping about the nature of the envelopes in which they're supposed to mail their absentee ballots.

C'mon, guys (and gals). Envelopes?

There are a million registered Broward voters potentially ready to cast their votes on or before November 4, the county's new voting machines are barely out of their factory packaging, and GOP lawyers look as if they're ready to litigate each Democratic vote, excruciatingly, ballot by ballot.

Then here comes the 'Pipe, griping about tiny markings on the county's absentee ballots.

Here's the deal, though. The county has sent out at least 124,000 absentee ballots so far with return envelopes that identify voters' party affiliations.

If you're a registered Democrat voting by absentee ballot in the county, the return envelope will have "Dem" on the outside, along with your name. Republicans are "Rep," and independents are "Npa," for "no party affiliation." Broward is the only county in South Florida with the party identifications.

There's no reason for this. The November 4 election is a general one, not a primary in which there would be different ballots for each party. It's a violation of the venerable principle of voting in privacy, critics say.

"As soon as the envelope is marked with one party's designation rather than the other, a degree of anonymity has been lost," says Chuck Lichtman, lead counsel on election law matters for the Florida Democratic Party. Lichtman has proposed that the county issue official stickers to cover the identification markings.

It's an academic point, though, right? Privacy schmivacy. The vote gets counted as soon as it arrives at a vote counting facility. Who cares what the envelope says?

Trouble is, on an absentee ballot's journey from voter to vote-counter, it passes through many hands, notably those of a series of postal workers. An unscrupulous mail handler with the motivation to manipulate an election could, theoretically, after deducing how you voted based on the envelope marking, deep-six your ballot. This would be not a random disappearance but an act of sabotage against one party or the other.

But, wait! Tailpipe, how could you! Maligning the U.S. Postal Service, the most trusted of all the federal agencies, which delivers the mail through rain or snow? Oh, no.

Mary Cooney, spokeswoman for Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes, says county election officials are not concerned about "chain of custody" issues.

"We have confidence that the post office is secure and that it will be processing election ballots in a manner that is proper," Cooney says curtly.

Broward County Republican Chairman Chip LaMarca offers similar sentiments. "I'm going to err on the side of having faith in the postal employees," he said.

Tailpipe throws no blanket of gratuitous suspicion in the direction of all mail handlers — though it's they who will be the first to tell you not to send cash through the mail.

Here's the 'Pipe's question: You shouldn't send money, but it's OK to mail your precious stake in democracy virtually open to public perusal? Tailpipe thinks not. (Go ahead. Mail a letter with the words "Contains $20" on the envelope and see if it gets to its intended destination.) There's been enough funny business in elections in South Florida in the past eight years that nobody should be trusted hands down.

As Paul Lehto, co-founder of the national voting rights group Psephos, put it to Tailpipe: "Faith and trust have no part in American government. Checks and balances do. The best elections are when the parties distrust each other and are watching each other like hawks." You could crochet those words onto a cushion as a staple of American democracy.

Lehto points out also that, in the viperously litigious atmos­phere of this election, the county may be opening itself to a legal attack by one party or the other on all absentee ballots.

"Election officials have early intelligence there that can be used for partisan reasons," he says. If, say, there's a heavy Democratic absentee vote, the Republicans could sue to have all absentee ballots thrown out based on the envelope markings.

Lehto also, by the way, dismisses Cooney's claim that the party affiliation markings were "programmed" information as "bullshit."

"Every line of computer code is written by a human being," he says.

Snipes recently compared the imminent election, with hundreds of thousands of Broward voters ready to descend upon the polls, as a potential tsunami. Tailpipe has his rusty fingers crossed that the wave of voters won't be followed by an onslaught of brief-waving lawyers.

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Edmund Newton