Common Sense: Paper Ballots are Insufficient for Voting Integrity

Note: This is the third post in an occasional series on Common Sense Election Integrity, summarizing, updating, and expanding on many previous posts covering election integrity, focused on Connecticut. <next> <previous>

Last time our post ended with, “Voter Verified Paper Ballots alone provide the opportunity for voting integrity, a necessary prerequisite for democracy. ‘Opportunity’ is insufficient.


Voter Verified Paper Ballots (VVPBs) are a necessary condition for voting integrity, yet as they say “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”.  VVPBs are only one link in a long chain that provides voting integrity, we might construct different chains with different links, but in the end, the entire chain must be complete and strong enough to provide voting integrity.

Three major segments of the chain of voting integrity:

  1. Democratic voting access and participation: This would include areas critical to an effective democratic process beyond counting votes accurately such as fair rights to vote, accurate voter registration, lack of voter suppression, ballot design, candidate access to the ballot, campaign financing mechanisms, along with voter access to candidate information, complete news, and sufficient education.
  2. A reliable and credible ballot chain of custody: Just like evidence in court, if we cannot trust the chain of custody of ballots then they can only provide a false confidence.
  3. Exploiting ballots to create voting integrity and credibility: Ballots never used, seldom used, or incorrectly used are as helpful as seat belts used improperly, or not at all. Ballots provide election integrity when used for timely and effective audits and recounts coupled with effective action.

In this post, we discuss item #3:

Exploiting ballots to create voting integrity and credibility

Ballots must actually be used for election integrity. This seems so simple it may seem unnecessary to point out, except that many voters and officials seem to believe merely employing optical scanners is sufficient – the cure for voting integrity concerns.  In our The Myths In the Nutmeg State, this is Myth #9:

Myth #9 – If there is ever a concern we can always count the paper.


The law limits when the paper can be counted.

  • Audits can protect against error or fraud only if enough of the paper is counted and discrepancies in the vote are investigated and acted upon in time to impact the outcome of the election.  See myths #1 and #2.
  • An automatic recount (called a recanvass in CT) occurs when the winning vote margin is within 0.5%. The polling place moderator or the Secretary of the State can call for a recanvass, but even candidates must convince a court that there is sufficient reason for a recount.
  • Recanvass by hand is not required by law.  In early 2008 the Secretary of the State reversed her policy of hand recanvasses.  We now recanvass by optical scanner.

Unlike Connecticut, some jurisdictions with paper ballots do not perform post-election audits or automatic recounts in any form.

To fully exploit paper ballots would require they be used in several ways in addition to the original election count (by hand or by optical scanner):

  • A thorough, complete, adversarial, manual hand recount on close elections. By thorough we mean checking each ballot to correctly classify it by voter’s intent and checking both sides the ballot for distinguishing marks which would disqualify the vote. By complete we mean reviewing absentee ballot and provisional ballot materials to make sure that appropriate ballots are counted and appropriate ballots are rejected. By manual hand count we mean that all counting is performed by human counters using counting and tallying methods that assure accuracy. By adversarial we mean one where all competing interests are represented in closely observing the classification and counting, have a right to object to the classification or procedures employed, and there are far means for resolving objections. By close election we mean one where there is more than a very small probability that errors in classifying votes, counting votes, qualifying ballots, or tallying errors could have caused a result different than the voters’ intentions in the original count.
  • Comprehensive, statistically meaningful, effective post-election audits. Audits approaching the standards in the Principles and Best Practices for Post-Election Audits and The League of Women Voters Report on Election Auditing. By Comprehensive we mean auditing all ballots cast including those originally counted by hand or by machine, and with all contests at least subject to selection for audit. We advocate for optical scanning followed by audits, those who advocate for counting exclusively by hand, should not trust that original hand count and should also insist on post-election audits. (We also point out that beyond the paper ballots, comprehensive election auditing should include auditing the whole voting process). By statistically meaningful we mean auditing enough paper and analyzing results such that strong statistical confidence in the result can be determined. By effective we mean the results of audits are used consistently for improving the election process, determining what levels to set for automatic close election recounts, and lead to full recounts when the audit cannot guarantee a high confidence in the original reported result.
  • Candidate and public directed audits. Candidates and the public (at least in the case of ballot questions) should be given the right to select ballots for audit or recount either as part of post-elections audits or by paying the cost of such audits. Given such rights, questioned results in specific districts could be selected for audit or recount to satisfy the concerns of candidates and the public.
  • Public access to the ballots. Several states provide for public review of ballots under freedom of information laws and other means. Such access has been used to instill public confidence in the process and also to confirm suspicions based on statically irregular results. When possible ballots should be posted to the web, rather than requiring access that is expensive and time consuming for officials, candidates and the public.

This is our list, let us know if we have missed another valuable use for ballots. Paper ballots are necessary but insufficient for election integrity. Using the ballots as we have described is also necessary for voting integrity. Yet, we must insure that the ballots audited, recounted, or accessed by the public are actually the ones cast by voters. Sometime soon we will discuss the chain of custody!


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