Politicians of both major parties love to boast that the US is the world’s oldest democracy and of course a “model for the world.” Putting aside the matter of whether or not that is even true (US “democracy” cannot really be said to have begun until women got the vote in 1920, and maybe until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made voting by blacks truly a reality in parts of the country, and meanwhile Iceland’s Althing or parliament dates to 930 AD), the use of electronic voting machines in many jurisdictions has made any such claims a complete joke.
These needlessly confusing, often malfunctioning, and easily hackable devices, which have demonstrably done things like switch whole voting records from one candidate to another, or simply erased all votes cast in a day, and which are so costly that they are used as an excuse to provide only minimal opportunity to vote in many “undesirable” election districts, leading to lines that can require waiting hours outdoors just to get to cast a ballot, belie the claims made for the US to be a beacon of liberty and democratic governance.
So what’s the deal with these machines? Why do we even have them?
The goal of any voting system should be accuracy, not speed of counting, and yet we see state after state and county after county getting sold on electronic equipment that is costly, error-ridden, failure prone, and unnecessary. For centuries, people in democracies have voted by raised hands or with paper ballots, with minimal problems given good official and volunteer oversight.
What is driving the switch to machines in the US is the media. The same corporate media that have turned campaigns into battles over soundbites, “gotcha” questions, and a focus on non-issues like whether a candidate’s hair is silly looking or whether he/she believes in God.
For the corporate media, Election Day and Election Night are all about money – specifically a race to “call” election results. Who will be first to announce a winner as the votes are tallied? In an industry that has been paring down news budgets year after year to the point that little serious reporting gets done, vast sums are spent having people stationed at polling places everywhere calling in the tallies as they get read out of the machines.
But why should we care — particularly when it comes to national races — when newly elected, or re-elected, members of Congress, and the president, are not actually installed in office until January, more than two months after the voting is over and done with?
There is plenty of time to get it not first, but right, and that would be true even if we were to use paper ballots and count them by hand, as used to be the standard procedure.
Many countries that have fallen for the lure of electronic voting have later seen the error of their ways and have gone back to paper ballots, precisely for that reason. Some jurisdictions in the US have recently gone back to paper ballots, too. Their people want to make sure that votes are tallied properly, and that in the case of close races, the count can be checked accurately. Out of eight European countries that experimented with electronic voting machines, six have rejected the idea and have gone back to paper ballots. We saw that system at work earlier this year in the bitterly fought and unexpectedly close “Brexit” vote that saw a narrow majority of Britons vote to have the UK leave the Eurozone.
As a Fulbright journalism professor in residence at Sun Yat-Sen National University in Kaohsiung, I witnessed and reported on a hard-fought election in Taiwan in 2004 that showed just how reliable paper ballots can be. On that island, where democracy is a recent and enthusiastically practiced affair following decades of a nasty dictatorship under Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo, there was a fierce election contest between the incumbent president of the Democratic Progressive Party and the candidate of the old Kuomintang founded by Chiang. The big issue, as always in Taiwan, was relations with the People’s Republic of China, which doesn’t recognize Taiwan’s independence and considers it a province of China and China’s “largest island.” The DPP favors open independence and a standoffish approach to China, while the KMT typically wants better relations and closer economic ties.
In 2004 the race was unusually tight. Then, a week before the voting, both President Chen Shui-bian and his running made, VP Annette Lu, running on the DPP ticket, were hit by an apparent assassin’s bullet during a motorcade. Chen’s abdomen was grazed, leaving a horizontal gash across his abdominal muscles, while Lu’s kneecap was struck. There was a huge dispute over whether the shooting was staged or a real assassination attempt, though the path of the bullet, which entered through the front windshield of the jeep carrying the two candidates, followed a remarkable, ricocheting course hitting but only wounding both Chen and Lu (it was reminiscent of the “magic bullet” that is said to have killed JFK and wounded then Texas Gov. John Connally). Turnout on election day after that incident was a record, with the final tally being 50.11% for the DPP candidates and 49.89% for the KMT slate. That was a margin of about 0.23%, out of 12.9 million votes cast. Talk about Florida in 2000!
Naturally, the KMT demanded a recount. There were battles in the courts and in the legislative Yuan over whether and how to do it, but ultimately the president agreed to a recount. I, along with most of the Taiwanese people, then watched in astonishment on television as bales of ballots were painstakingly hand counted in each voting district, each paper ballot passing from the hand of a representative of one party to the hand of a representative of the other party and then to a neutral judge before being counted. It was a grindingly slow process that took over a week to complete. In the end, Chen and the DPP still won the election, though his margin of victory slipped slightly from an original 29,518 votes, or 0.2291% of the total, to just 25,563 votes, or 0.2289%.
After all that effort, in other words, out of 12.9 million votes cast (about one tenth of the number cast in US presidential elections), the difference between the initial count and the recount was only 3955 votes.
Try to imagine a recount in any major election in the US coming out that close to the original count — especially in an election that close that included an assassination attempt! Many election districts in the US wouldn’t even be able to recount their votes, because their electronic machines have no paper record of individual votes – just the recorded totals – if that. In fact, according to one expert, electronic machines, which all have documented error rates, some as high as 5% of votes cast, because of both human error and inevitable internal glitches, mean that a recount of a really close race where the margin of victory was within that error rate wouldn’t prove anything.
Clearly, paper ballots work. They don’t provide a rapid result, which means that the ratings and the ad revenue from bleary-eyed voters watching endless blather on the tube interspersed with commercials for drugs, reverse mortgages and Ginsu knives, will plummet, but if the goal of a voting system is to get it right, paper ballots win by a landslide.
Why doesn’t the US go back to paper ballots?
Ask your local media.
Maybe someone should do a poll of us voters, and ask whether we want our elections to be fraud-free, or just want fast counting and a quick answer to who won. I suspect the fraud-free option would win hands down.
Of course, there can be fraud with paper ballots, but it’s a hell of a lot harder to stuff ballot boxes with paper ballots (there are, after all, records of how many people voted, so you’d have to steal away an equal number of cast ballots to make that work), or to alter a large number of cast ballots, or to steal and “lose” cartons of ballots. And it’s also easier for voting officials to put physical security around paper ballots until they are counted and until any recount has been done, than to guard against software viruses or hacks. For one thing, the competing parties’ officers and volunteers can physically verify the presence of secure guard personnel over cast paper ballots, while there’s no easy way to verify that proper measures are being taken to protect electronic systems and electronic records of votes cast.
The US has a long way to go to before it can make a credible claim to be one of the world’s leading democracies, even if not the oldest. Returning to paper ballots, and requiring all jurisdictions to have a long period before election day during which people can mail them in, would be a good start.