FAQ: Should We Vote All Paper?

Many voting advocates take a strong position that we should vote only on paper and then count the paper.

Registrars and long term election officials resist the paper.


Voting all paper has several advantages. It is simple, which means that we can all understand the process and the equipment involved. It can easily be made transparent, which means that procedures can be put in place that where the counting and voting can be viewed and verified publicly. Finally, it is economical. For the public it has one disadvantage – we and the media would need to get beyond our custom of getting the results right away on election night – it would mean the end of the victory and consolation parties starting at 8:00 PM on election night – the end of the breathtaking marathon news coverage.

They point to other western democracies that vote almost exclusively on paper.

Registrars and long term election officials resist the paper. They like the fact that they can close the polls after a too long election day and go home in an hour or so, knowing that they are pretty much done with this election. They would rather not face recruiting even more poll workers to do the counting.

They point out that paper does not have such a sterling record and that the other democracies that vote on paper have much simpler ballots with less to count.

From “The Machinery Of Democracy”, by the Brennan Center:

Election officials, with extensive experience in the logistics of handling tons of paper ballots, have little faith in paper and understand the kind of breakdowns in procedures that lead to traditional attacks like ballot box stuffing; in contrast, sophisticated attacks on computer voting systems appear very difficult to many of them. Computer security experts understand sophisticated attacks on computer systems and recognize the availability of tools and expertise that makes these attacks practical to launch

These from “Steal This Vote” by Andrew Gumbel:

There is no one way to steal an election in the United States. With the infrastructure of democracy split into fifty states and more than four thousand counties, the permutations for mischief are almost endless…

There is nothing new, either, about technological miracle solutions that turn all too quickly to bitter disappointment. Before electronic voting, punch cards were hailed as the salvation of American democracy…Before punch cards came lever machines, which proved less impregnable than their manufactures claimed and couldn’t be double checked.

So neither technology or paper is our salvation. In the long run we need to improve the integrity of the whole system. Even procedures will not help if we do not have effective means to assure they are followed and not penetrated.

The short term solutions favored here, to protect our ballots starting as soon as possible, are the triple combination of optical scan followed by hand-counted audits sufficient to detect errors and deter fraud, followed by strong rigid criteria and independent subjective judgement to call for full hand-counted recounts.

Longer term solutions include stronger, more transparent procedures, open or reviewable source code, provably more secure source code, more secure procedures for election/ballot programming, with research into more cost effective voting equipment and auditing.

Yes, counting all the paper would be safer than what we have now with optical scan and insufficient audits. Optical scan followed by 100% audits would be quite safe, but we would be satisfied with optical scan followed by sufficient random audits.

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