TCS Daily

Paper Ballots

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - November 5, 2002 12:00 AM

As I write this, the voting hasn't even started. But I've already gotten an email telling me that there are dozens of lawyers waiting to file legal challenges to elections in my state, and I'm sure that the same is going on everywhere else.

As with Florida in 2000, charges of fraud and voter misinformation will fly. People will say that ballots were tampered with. People will say that voting machines were rigged, or confusing. People will complain about tabulation errors and "hanging chads" and outright fraud.

To these problems (well, most of them, anyway) I have a technological solution. The technology is good. It is easy to understand. It is surprisingly resistant to fraud. And it is inexpensive. It's the paper ballot.

Paper ballots are easy to understand - just put an "X" in the box next to the appropriate candidate's name. I don't find voting machines especially hard to understand, but I do always have to read the instructions on the ones I use, and I'm a law professor who works as a sound engineer on the side. So others may find them more confusing than I do. Everyone, on the other hand, can make an "X."

Paper ballots are surprisingly resistant to fraud. Actually, it shouldn't be that surprising. A paper ballot encodes lots of useful information besides the obvious. Not only is the information about the vote contained in the form, but also information about the voter. Different colors of ink, different styles of handwriting, etc., make each ballot different. Erasing the original votes is likely to leave a detectable residue. Creating all new ballots with fraudulent votes requires substantial variation among them or the fakery is much more obvious; that's hard work. And destroying the original ballots in order to replace them with fraudulent ones isn't that easy - there's a lot of paper to be disposed of, and shredding it, or burning it, or hiding it is comparatively easy to detect. (Protecting the ballots before counting doesn't require fancy encryption, either: just a steel box with a lock, a slot on the top, and a seal.) What's more, because people are familiar with paper documents, fraud is easy to understand when it occurs. Paper ballots are both robust (resistant to fraud) and transparent (easy to understand).

Compare this sophisticated voting technology to that of voting machines. A voting machine captures only the information regarding the vote. Once it has done so, one vote looks like another. There's no handwriting, no style, no ink, just a simple notation of which candidate was favored. Most voting machines store votes electronically, meaning that if they're changed, there's no troubling paper residue for fraud-perpetrators to dispose of. And because voting machines are complicated - and because their actual workings are unseen, and often kept secret - it's much harder for voters, members of the press, and others to identify or understand fraud. Electronic ballots, in other words, are neither robust nor transparent.

The fact is, if you could come up with a new technology as simple and resistant to fraud as the paper ballot, people would be pretty impressed. So why do we use machines?

Perhaps in part for the same reason that some people used to prefer canned vegetables to fresh ones: "it's more modern!" And voting machines do offer some benefits. Most importantly, they're fast: within minutes after the polls close, the totals can be read off and sent to our ever-hungry news media, and to the dwindling, but still large, number of people who pay close attention to election returns as they unfold.

But of course that virtue is now disappearing. With charges of fraud being raised left and right, the voting machine totals are increasingly likely to be recounted anyway, meaning that it may be days (or longer, as with Florida in 2000) before a final total appears. Given that, people might as well spend their time counting paper ballots as recounting machine ballots.

Voting machines are also favored because they're flexible - they can be reprogrammed at the last minute to take account of changes in candidates. But, again, this technological advantage has been undermined by other innovations, such as lawsuits over changing ballots at the last minute, and the growth of absentee ballots and early voting, which make this advantage less relevant.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the paper ballot: An idea whose time has come again.




But Paper isn't a cure-all
Perhaps I'm a cynic. I grew up in St. Louis, watching massive registration fraud and vanishing ballot boxes. I've lived near San Francisco, where ballot boxes floating in the bay uncounted are not unknown.

Electronic voting is not a cure-all, but the less time for the votes to be manipulated during the counting process is a huge plus; this is the reason I strongly oppose absentee voting without a good reason.

The situation is a little like guerilla warfare; tactics must evolve in response to those who would commit fraud. At this point in time, I'm almost more concerned about massive registration fraud, which arguably has placed Loretta Sanchez in the House, and almost certainly determined the outcome of the gubernatorial race in the state of Washington.

I read yesterday that one state is looking to all mail-in voting as a cure all for problems with electronic voting.

Mail-in voting is one step above the raise your hand voting unions love to use.

Is anyone interested in the integrity of the voting process?

It's not the medium, it's the crooks
I don't care what medium is used, fraud will continue until we prosecute the offenders. With jail time. And, since it's a violation of our Constitutionally guaranteed right to vote, in a Federal prison.

I used to live in OH. I well remember the voting scandals that lead to the decision to install electronic voting. Politicians, who had the ability to bestow a HUGE contract, jumped on the bandwagon.

But, most of the problem with the votes was in fraudulent registration. Right now, with absentee voting, I'm fearful of the likelihood of fraud - the ability to swing elections has been carefully laid down by partisans. In some states, over 1/4 of the voters may vote by mail.

Not, of course, those likely Republicans, the military voter. Those voters have to jump through hoops to cast a ballot.

paper is NOT resistant to fraud
Paper is subject to loss, theft, human misinterpretation or error. Recall the hanging chad controversy.

Computer systems with audit trails are more efficient, properly designed can remove human error from the process.

At the end of the day, though, if someone is determined to cheat, cheating will occur.

I would suggest another way that is tried and true: ATM machines. We trust them with dispensing our money, why can't we trust them with recording our vote?
If every elector was given an ATM like card with a unique PIN, they could use any ATM machine in the world to cast their vote, plus they could take a printed out copy of their votes with them. Later, using a secure log in that would not identify the voter, they could check to make sure that their vote is accurately recorded at the elections office.
Throw in the added advantages that election day is almost always a federal holiday, so the banks are closed, you would also have a photo of who used the card, so if there are any shenanigans, they could be quickly discerned.
ATM companies could contract with the elections office for a cheaper cost than would be spent on elections monitors or judges. Plus, after you voted you could get some cash to celebrate your vote at the local watering hole.

Paper and fraud
Paper ballots are absolutely not fraud-resistant. The term "stuffing the ballot box" comes from the era of paper -- the forerunners of ACORN would literally empty their coat pockets of hundreds of pre-marked ballots when no one was looking.

Fraud is not the only consideration in choosing a voting technology. The modern expectation is that a voting technology must be...

Secret – Can no one discover my vote?
Secure – Can no one tamper with my vote?
Accurate – Will each and every vote be counted?
Recountable – Can we conduct a recount?
Auditable – Is there a way to verify accuracy?
Reliable – Will it not break down on election day?
Provisionability – Can it handle provisional voters?
Artifactual – Physical (paper) audit trail?
Accessible – Can disabled / illiterate voters use it?
Configurable – Easily adapted to multiple precincts?

Paper meets some of these criteria, but hardly all.


TCS Daily Archives