America’s voting system is in trouble. To do its job, it needs to produce clear and trustworthy outcomes. It’s not enough to produce a winner and loser. The losers have to believe that they lost fair and square, and the public has to have enough confidence in the system to be skeptical when sore losers claim fraud.
We don’t have that right now. To get there, we need paper ballots, voter ID, and open counting – plus a bit of self-restraint among our political class. Across much of America, voting is now done by computerized devices. Computers have many advantages: They’re fast, they’re easy to program (compared with changing printed ballots), and they produce rapid results that can be quickly reported.
But they also have problems. One is that to trust a computer, you have to trust the people who wrote its software, and everyone else who may have had an opportunity to change that software. Devices that connect to the Internet also raise the risk that people on the other side of the world might change the software or the results.
Since 2020, such worries have often been dismissed as right-wing propaganda, but just before the election USA Today published a roundup of concerns about electronic voting that cited numerous computer scientists. Conclusion: “All election systems are for the most part black boxes: proprietary software and hardware jealously guarded by the handful of companies selling them. But state reviews and court cases opening up DRE [direct-recording electronic] systems of all makes and models for examination have for years flagged problems.”
“The whole community of computer scientists is mystified why election officials will not listen to experts about technology but will listen to the vendors” selling and maintaining it, said computer scientist Duncan Buell of the University of South Carolina.
Prior to the 2020 election, several prominent Democrats, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Ron Wyden, sent a letter citing reports of vote-switching by machines manufactured by Dominion Systems. They wrote: “These problems threaten the integrity of our elections and demonstrate the importance of election systems that are strong, durable, and not vulnerable to attack.”
They were right. Whether or not voting machines were actually compromised, if people can’t trust them, they’re no good. So, we need something more trustworthy. How do we do that?
Paper ballots, voter ID, and open counting, for a start. Paper ballots aren’t fraud-proof, but they have several advantages over electronic voting machines. First, they can’t be hacked by someone in Minsk or Guangdong. To change a paper ballot, you need physical access.
What’s more, while you can change a vote tally in a computer by flipping some bits – and bits are interchangeable – paper ballots capture more information than simply votes for or against a candidate. Erasing original votes is likely to leave some residue.
Creating large numbers of fake ballots is also harder. Computer votes have no identifying characteristics. Details of handwriting, ink color, and so on make each paper ballot unique. If you mass-produced completed ballots, it would be much harder to make them look genuine; a Xerox machine wouldn’t do the job.
Of course, votes need to be genuine. Voter fraud is itself a species of voter suppression. If a fraudulent voter casts a ballot, that ballot neutralizes the vote of a legitimate voter who chose a different candidate.
Many states (including mine, Tennessee) require a photo ID to vote, as is the custom around the world. Voting by mail is frowned upon. In Europe, 63% of countries ban mail-in ballots except for citizens living abroad; another 22% ban mail-in ballots even for overseas citizens. Most countries that allow mail-in ballots require people to show an ID to obtain one. Some countries – including those where the U.S. has tried to boost democracy, such as Afghanistan and Iraq – have gone further, marking voters (remember the famous “purple finger” photos?) to prevent repeat voting.
The goal is simple: one person, one vote – with both person and vote authenticated.
I’m not the only one to endorse paper ballots. After the Democrats’ Iowa caucuses debacle last year, where a smartphone voting app failed miserably, the New York Times ran a piece headlined “The only safe election is a low-tech election.”
And as Sen. (now Vice President) Kamala Harris noted, “Russia can’t hack a piece of paper.”
Of course, to be trusted, votes must also be counted fairly. I recommend an open count at each polling place. Counting votes on the spot would eliminate problems with ballots being “lost” on the way to a central counting facility or being “discovered” in the trunk of a car during the count. Everything should be done out in the open.
There should also be accountability for voting officials. Votes lost or found? You lose your job. The responsibility is vital, and there should be serious consequences for failure or dereliction.
Finally, we need a better political culture. Politicians were once unwilling to challenge elections for fear of looking like sore losers. That has changed. From the “hanging chad” recounts in 2000 to the Diebold conspiracy theories of 2004 to claims of a “hacked election” in 2016 to the ongoing hysteria about the 2020 election, charges of fraud, made by major political figures, have become normal.
This may help fire up the base and generate media clicks, but it’s destructive – and it undercuts the credibility of any genuine charges of fraud that may emerge. True, reforming our political culture, which I regard as deeply dysfunctional, may be asking too much. All the more reason to support paper ballots, voter ID, and open counting on-site. Adopting these methods would do much to promote political trust, and political legitimacy, in a nation sorely in need of both.