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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Why Voting Machine Paper Trails Aren't Enough

The always-thought-provoking Washington Spectator has a very good article in the January 15 issue, explaining exactly why it’s not enough to provide paper-based audit trails to electronic voting machines–that instead we need actual paper ballots.

Among the reasons:

  • If the ballot is initially generated electronically, it is still hackable. If the ballot is generated by the voter marking a durable paper and then electronically counted (the system that has been used in my own town of Hadley MA for years), it is not.

  • Electronic machines that generate a paper receipt have various problems with paper jams, difficulty of data retrieval from a huge spool, etc.

  • Many of the receipt systems use thermal printing–that same icky unstable technology that becomes unreadable after a week in your wallet!

  • Electronic ballot systems with paper backup have caused numerous problems in actual elections, where voters reported that their choice didn’t show up on the screen, where tens of thousands of ballots didn’t register a vote (as in Sarasota County, Florida, or simply where the system is not well designed to enable voters to easily check their wishes against the receipt (and what happens when a voter wants to report problems anyway?). None of these issues even occur if we start with a marked paper ballot.

  • Most importantly, the physical paper ballots can always be recounted by hand if there is suspicion of problems. If they were generated electronically, however, and there’s fraud or error in the set-up, we have much less of a guarantee that the ballots represent actual voter intent.

  • Of course, scanners and tabulators can be hacked as well. Thus, I would hope for nationwide legislation not only specifying paper ballots on durable stock with durable ink, but also mandating a hand-count before certification; electronic scanners, counters, and tabulators should be considered nothing more than a preliminary, unverified, indication of the results–good for generating news reports but not to be relied on to actually elect people.

    Oh yes, and I think the cost of switching to these much more reliable systems should be borne by the companies that brought us these unreliable machines in the first place. It should not fall on the taxpayer to pay for the clean up of this very preventable mess.


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