Saturday, September 08, 2007

disparaging paper receipts

Timothy Ryan today writes to disparage paper receipts as a way of ensuring that the ballot you just cast via an electronic voting machine was recorded correctly.

Ryan, of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project, complains that over history, there has been fraud and skullduggery in elections using paper ballots and also moans that paper receipts aren't helpful for the blind. He whines that counting paper copies of ballots, in a close election, could be time consuming, and finally warns that 20% of the printers that would churn out paper confirmations of the vote could fail on election day.

Ok - all of these facts are true (except maybe the intoleraby high failure rate of printers). But they do NOT mean that his alternative - using one of a couple of systems (Prime III and Punchscan, being developed respectively at Auburn University and the University of Maryland) to double-check the votes - is necessarily better.

First, maybe Ryan hasn't noticed, but their has been chicanery in elections using electronic voting systems. Or perhaps he didn't see the unusual vote counts in many Ohio counties in 2004, with minor Democratic candidates in many areas running far ahead of John Kerry, a pattern you simply do not see normally, and a pattern that wasn't seen in counties and precincts that used optical-scan ballots and other similar, verifiable and less-susceptible-to-hacking methods. (There are plenty of other examples, if you care to look for them.) Should we therefore abandon electronic voting entirely?

Actually, I'd say yes. No, paper ballots aren't perfect and neither are paper receipts. But those aren't the only choices. Optical scan balloting is much quicker to count and you still have the paper ballots to confirm things. It may be messy, it may take a little time, but if there is one thing important in a democracy, it is to ensure that votes are accurately counted. And pardon me for being skeptical, but I have real doubts about having an electronic system to ensure that an electronic system isn't on the fritz or isn't being used to pad the vote. Who would actually sell those systems? Companies like Diebold that already provide electronic voting machines and lean heavily towards the Republicans? Elections are one of those few areas that "market-based solutions" are not necessarily the best one. And the market incentives Ryan refers to are fine if you assume that companies making and counting elections are only interested in making a buck - a point that the notorious statement by Diebold's CEO about making sure that Ohio would be delivered to Bush in 2004 should make you reconsider.



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