To Avoid Vote-Counting Fraud, Use Paper Ballots

To Avoid Vote-Counting Fraud, Use Paper Ballots
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It's 2016 and the county is facing one of the most contentious and in some ways historical elections in our history. The first woman could be elected president. Her opponent is a businessman with no political experience whose own surrogates describe his ascendancy to the Republican nomination as a “hostile takeover” of the GOP. The stakes are high, and the heated and unprecedented talk of “rigged” elections only adds to the sense that we are in unchartered territory.

NBC News recently reported that Donald Trump believes “Hillary Clinton couldn't win in Pennsylvania unless she cheats.” While there is no proof that Clinton herself would “cheat,” as Trump insinuates, analysis of recent public voting data shows me -- and other statisticians -- that we may already have crossed over into the dark arts of ballot box tampering that Trump fears will happen in 2016.

Most people assume that electronic voting machines make voting more efficient, safer and more accurate. They certainly make vote counting faster. But the disquieting reality is that they also can be easily hacked, leaving our voting system more vulnerable than the DNC’s emails.

Electronic voting machine manipulation can bring election fraud into realms of undetectibility previously undreamed of. If a clever programmer were to insert malicious code in the right place in the tabulation software, he or she could flip a minimum number of votes but spread over a maximum number of polling stations. This could achieve a win for their preferred candidate with the tampering being impossible to detect without an expensive and extensive audit of the results. All too often, such audits are not even possible thanks to electronic machines with no paper trail whatsoever.

There is evidence suggesting that this has already happened. While this notion might seem crazy, it is not. I’m a PhD statistician and am certified as a quality engineer by the American Society for Quality [Control]. Getting an accurate vote count does not require rocket science-level math. The security and integrity of the voting process is compromised for every citizen who is asked to accept someone else’s word that the vote count is accurate. Yes, that is the situation across this country except in the few U.S. counties, mostly rural, that require a hand count of paper ballots. 

As a preemptive defense to cheating, Trump and Gov. Mike Pence have been saying that poll watchers would be a good idea to deter voter fraud. The problem is that poll watchers can only catch voter fraud -- individuals attempting to vote twice at the same location. Voter fraud, however, is not much of a problem in America. Fixation on voter fraud distracts from the real crime of election fraud.

If Trump sincerely wants to support the integrity of our elections, he should instead encourage his supporters to conduct exit polls. These are the surveys conducted by local volunteers who are basically auditing their own or a nearby polling location. Such polls would be particularly valuable in states like Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana, where citizens must vote electronically on machines that lack a paper trail. Locations without paper trails show the most blatant statistical evidence of fraud.

Exit polls are the reason that I believe the primaries were rigged for Clinton. I’ve expressed my thoughts about that in my blog post “The Theater Is on Fire.”

Exit polls are not difficult or expensive to run but they do require some dedicated individuals to do the work. Trump supporters could do so (as could Clinton supporters or anyone else).  Then, no matter the outcome, they would have evidence they themselves collected to decide whether there was a fair count.

However, the best way to maintain the integrity of elections is the old-fashioned way.

In a paper titled “What Constitutes an Election Audit,” election fraud investigator Richard Hayes Phillips put it this way: “In my judgment, the solution is this: paper ballots, counted by hand, in full public view, at the polling place, on Election Night, no matter how long it takes.”

Phillips conducted an audit of Ohio 2004 voting records and concluded that the election had been stolen on behalf of George W. Bush. Unfortunately, Phillips didn’t get access to those records until 2006 and then spent three years auditing them. Nothing changed. Having been stymied in my own quest for access to voting records in Sedgwick County, Kansas, since the 2012 election, I am in complete agreement with Dr. Phillips – the best solution is voter-marked paper ballots, counted by hand, in full public view.

My conviction that our voting process has been subject to widespread corruption is based on statistical analyses, my own and that of others. I cannot expect non-statisticians to be as convinced as I am because the analyses require some complex math. But it shouldn’t require a PhD in statistics to spot a phony count. Faith in our voting system should not be based on a process that requires expert analysis to make a judgment about its honesty.

An untrustworthy election system is a time bomb. As Mychal Denzel Smith said in his memoir, “Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching,” while discussing the 2015 Baltimore riots: “We picked up the bricks because the ballots weren’t strong enough.” Let’s work together this election to make sure they are fair and just.

Elizabeth Clarkson is the chief statistician for the National Institute for Aviation Research.

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