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Fair Elections Require Paper Ballots

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A few days ago, Netaloid pointed out the irony of President Bush chiding the powers that be in Ukraine over apparent voting irregularities while he had essentially zilch to say about just-as-apparent voting irregularities during the recent elections in the United States.

Predictably, Netaloid was derided by knee-jerk Bush supporters who suggested his criticism of the election process was akin to believing aliens have landed in Roswell and amounted to sour grapes over Kerry’s loss. That derision has been sparked in part by a cadre of Democrats who appear to be pursuing an Ohio recount with the idea that the presidential election results somehow could be reversed.

For the record, Netaloid believes Bush’s election was legitimate and that recounts won’t change his win. But that’s not the point. Sufficient irregularities have surfaced to suggest the process of relying on computerized voting machines is seriously flawed. Voter disenfranchisement already was apparent last time around, especially among blacks in states such as Florida. It’s getting worse. And it’s time for an official investigation into voting machines, because what’s at stake is the public’s confidence that the election system is on the up-and-up.

David Allen of Black Box Voting sums it up pretty well:

Short of a signed confession, how do you tell the difference between tampering with the software to change the results and a failure of the software to record properly? Also, in the case of a truly skilled criminal, there will be no evidence of alterations to the machine. This is, of course, what we have been worrying about from the start and why we have demanded additional safeguards, such as paper ballots.

A corollary to this question would be “Did voting machine malfunctions cause inaccurate results to be reported?” The answer is, in my opinion, ABSOLUTELY! Why is this question not being asked? Because questions of fraud are sexier and appeal to people’s partisan nature. For some reason it is hard for people to accept that elections could be wrong just because the machines screwed up. Instead, they want to believe that any problem or inaccuracy is the result of skullduggery. In this highly divisive era no action is accidental, it is a coldly planned “enemy” action.

This way of looking at problems is completely counter-prodcutive because it leads to neither side being interested in the truth.While one side is convinced that the election results were inaccurate (which I am), they are convinced that any error was deliberately perpetrated (which I am NOT). Thus, the opposing side does not hear folks wanting to rationally explore what mechanisms of our electoral systems failed. They hear people screaming for their blood, threatening civil and criminal prosecution. Since no one wants to be on the recieving end of a witch hunt, they are going to dig their heels in and refuse to cooperate. And who can blame them?

How did the atmosphere get so poisonous? Most of the answer to that question is WAY beyond the scope of this discussion and certainly the subject of even more vitriol. The basic answer is, however, that WE LET IT HAPPEN BECAUSE WE CAN”T BE BOTHERED TO PERFORM OUR CIVIC DUTIES.

Now, before folks fill my mailbox with traditional Anglo-Saxon expressions of my character, let me clarify that by “we” I mean ALL of us as American citizens, INCLUDING the 80+ million of people who couldn’t be bothered to go to the polls. We seem proud of the almost 60% turnout we managed this year (the highest since 1968), but it is pretty damn pathetic compared to Australia which averages about 95%. Of course, some people argue that our “broken” election system is what leads to apathy, and they may be right. This is all the more reason for us to fix the existing system, but that is going to be hard to do when one side is determined to fix it by taking it out of the opposition’s hide and the opposition is equally determined to decline the honor.

Netaloid would point out that Australians are required by law to vote and thus their voter turnout is always going to be high. But otherwise, Allen is right on the money.

There were plenty of serious voting irregularities in Ohio alone in November, and they all deserve an investigation to assure citizens that their election process is honest. But it’s just as important to assure the citizenry in states using touch-screen and other computerized machines that their votes count. The problem continues to be that there is no mechanism to prove that even a recount is accurate. A recount merely amounts to having the machine regurgitate the numbers stored in memory. What if those numbers were wrong in the first place? There’s no verifyable receipt to prove or disprove results.

And that’s not acceptable. It’s a case of technology providing a worse problem than the one it set out to solve.

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  • RJ

    “We seem proud of the almost 60% turnout we managed this year (the highest since 1968), but it is pretty damn pathetic compared to Australia which averages about 95%.”

    In Australia, it’s a CRIME not to vote. Literally.

    So, in other words, you have people with no clue, and no opinion, choosing random candidates in order to avoid criminal penalties.

    Sure, turnout is higher. But that’s no way to run a democracy, IMHO…

  • RJ

    BTW, I agree with your major premise, that there should always be a “hard copy” of a cast ballot in order to allow for credible recounts…

  • I have recently participated in witnessing a recount here in Indiana, in District 9, on the recount for the Baron Hill (D) – Mike Sodrel (R) – Al Cox (L). I will post a report on that shortly, but I will say that paper ballots were most useful in the recount.

    For the record, in my campaign for Secretary of State in 2006, I will insist on paper trails from the ballot box.

  • Eric Olsen

    I agree there should be an independent means of verification, which would mean some kind of hard copy