By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
As readers know, I’m a big fan of paper ballots, and the recent Election in Virginia gives me a chance to explain why. (The “recount” phase — erroneously named, as what’s been happening is resolving absentee and provisional ballots — seems to have culminated with the Republicans keeping control of the Virginia House by a whisker, 49-51.) First, I’ll do that, and set up two requirements that any system for counting votes in a democracy should meet. Then, I’ll look at Virginia’s “Back to the Future” transition from digital voting to paper ballots.
From Brad Friedman’s essay on “Democracy’s Gold Standard” (with numbering added), a set of requirements for voting systems suitable for a democracy:
Last March, the country’s highest court found that secret, computerized vote counting was unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the country was Germany, and the Constitution violated by e-voting systems was the one that the U.S. wrote and insisted Germans ratify as part of their terms of surrender following WWII.
- “No ‘specialized technical knowledge’ can be required of citizens to vote or to monitor vote counts.”
- There is a “constitutional requirement of a publicly observed count.”
- “[T]he government substitution of its own check or what we’d probably call an ‘audit’ is no substitute at all for public observation.”
- “A paper trail simply does not suffice to meet the above standards.
- “As a result of these principles,…’all independent observers’ conclude that ‘electronic voting machines are totally banned in Germany’ because no conceivable computerized voting system can cast and count votes that meet the twin requirements of…being both ‘observable’ and also not requiring specialized technical knowledge.
If you go through this set of requirements, you’ll see that hand-marked paper ballots, hand-counted in public, meet every one of them. You will also see that digital voting systems, no matter how designed or implemented, cannot. They cannot, especially, meet requirements #1 (“no specialized technical knowledge… to monitor”) and #2 (“a publicly observed count”). The first requirement ensures that the voting process is not riggable by insiders with technical expertise (native, or hired); the second ensures that the actual voting is not rigged on election day. These are important requirements for a functioning democracy.
And that is how Germany conducts its voting today, from Deutsche Welle (“German election: Volunteers organize the voting and count the ballots”).
On September 24, hundreds of thousands of volunteers will be handing out ballots, checking voters’ names against lists, and counting votes once the polling station closes. The entire process is open to the public… Every citizen is allowed to watch and monitor the entire counting process; and in effect, the volunteers monitor each other.
No specialized technical knowledge:
[T]he volunteers open the ballot box, take out the envelopes and remove the ballot slips. They sort the ballots according to a pre-arranged system, decide on whether the votes are valid or invalid, and count the votes – reading out each vote aloud, which is noted in writing in a log.
At the end, the number of ballots is compared with the number of people who voted in that particular polling station.
Does that sound technical to you? The United Kingdom and Canada also use handmarked paper ballots, counted in public, as do most other countries. Many nations have — I don’t want to use the word “reverted” — come home to paper ballots after experimenting with digital systems and finding them wanting; so have some states in this country.
It wasn’t until 2014, when the state experienced a myriad of problems on Election Day, that Governor Terry McAuliffe proposed an overhaul of the state voting system. By 2015, the Virginia Board of Elections decertified the use of WINVote, but they were still stuck with other DRE (Direct Recording Electronic) systems. This past summer, at a DefCon conference in Las Vegas, computer scientists staged a “Voting Machine Hacking Village” to prove the instabilities of DRE, which included a single password for all machines, physical ports to insert malware, and reliance on outdated software that had not been updated since the mid-2000s.
In emergency meeting, Virginia elections board votes to scrap all touch-screen voting machines
The Virginia State Board of Elections voted Friday to discontinue use of all touch-screen voting machines throughout the state because of potential security vulnerabilities, forcing 22 cities and counties to scramble to find new equipment just weeks before voting begins for the November gubernatorial election.
Behind closed doors at an emergency meeting in Richmond on Friday afternoon, the board heard about specific vulnerabilities identified after a cybersecurity conference this summer in Las Vegas, where hackers showed they could break into voting machines with relative ease.
In an interview, Elections Commissioner Edgardo Cortés acknowledged that the short time frame could put localities under the gun. However, 10 of the 22 localities that still use touch screens, either as their primary voting method or for more limited uses, have already begun buying new equipment, Cortés said. That leaves 12 that will have to start from scratch, but Cortés said the rapid swap is “doable” and worth the “hiccups” that may come with new equipment.
(The Banter points to “Russian targeting of last year’s presidential election” (whatever that means) as do others, but if the threat of Russia hacking was a necessary cause for the Board’s decisionl, it was certainly the DefCon that was the proximate one). In any case, the Board’s decision was taken September 8, and by Election Day, November 7, the transition was complete with no reported problems, which shows you the advantages of adopting simple, rugged, and proven systems. Here is how the system works, as described in a press release from Albemarle County:
The Albemarle County Department of Voter Registration and Elections wants to alert voters that a new, digital scan voting system will be used in all County voting precincts in the upcoming November 3, 2015 general election. The previously used “touchscreen” voting machines have been replaced by the new voting systems as a result of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s mandate which requires jurisdictions move toward the use of digital scan technology.
With the new system, voters will mark paper ballots at marking booths, and then deposit the marked paper ballots into a digital ballot scanning machine, which will read the ballots, and drop them into a secure ballot storage bin. When the polls close on Election Day, at 7 PM, the election officers at the voting precincts will obtain the tabulated totals of votes from a results report that will be printed by the digital scanning machine. After the election, the paper ballots will be kept in secure storage for a period of one year, to ensure a voter-verified paper trail in the event of a recount.
Recall our two requirements. Can the Virginia System be said to meet them?
1) Public observation. Yes and no. Yes, because the ballot is handmarked, and dropped in the box in public. No, because the ballots are counted in the innards of the optical scanner. (This can be mitigated by storing the ballots for recounts later, if needed.) And no, because the actual running of the count from the scanners does not take place in public, nor (AFAIK) the integration into the totals of provisional and absentee ballots.
2) No specialized technical knowledge. Yes and no. Yes, because clearly paper ballots are an improvement in every way from the horrid touch screens. No, in the same that once again, the innards of the optical scanner must be relied upon. (This could be mitigated, depending on the choice of vendor, by dealing with an actual scanner industry, as opposed to a bunch of tiny, sketchy outfits purveying custom, proprietary software.)
In summary, and IMNSHO, there should be no digital determination or intermediation of voter intent whatever; why should we trust the scanner software engineers, or those who run them? There’s no reason to, any more than there’s reason to trust the engineers or operators of mechanical voting machines.) Virginia’s ballots are indeed hand-marked, but they are not hand-counted in public.
With these strong caveats, Virginia’s hand-marked paper ballots were well-received by the public, and that’s progress. WAVY:
At a voting precinct at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, voters said they had no issues going back to pen and paper.
“It goes back to the old days, you know, we’ve been voting a long time, so we remember when they didn’t have anything but paper ballots,” said voter Winston Whitehurst.
Voter Kevin Rafferty said he enjoyed the switch.
“It works. I understand. At least if we’re having to spend some time on it, we’re the only ones in control, perhaps is the idea. Nobody else hacking on in I guess is their theory so hopefully it’s safe,” he said.
“You can’t hack paper,” a man training a group of Hopewell poll workers on the new [optical scanning] machines said.
(But you can hack the scanners — using “specialized technical knowledge” —
and you can social engineer any process where the ballots are not hand-counted in public.)
Of the two requirements, the ability to monitor election results without technical expertise is needed to prevent chicanery by those who structure the voting process. And the public count is needed to prevent chicanery on election day by those who inspect and count the ballots. Paper ballots can and do meet these requirements. That’s why most Western countries use them, and why many other countries have returned to them, after experimenting with digital systems. Virginia’s re-adoption of hand-marked paper ballots is a step forward, not backward.
 For those who are concerned that paper ballots prevent ranked choice voting, Maine advocates disagree: “Ranked choice voting is designed to work with paper ballots.”
 The idea that “foreign invaders” (as the Christian Science Monitor puts it) are the main threat for election theft seems very odd to me. Surely domestic operatives are, or at least should be, the main concern?
 I vividly recall a Quebec referendum where the Quebec “scrutineers” rejected a seemingly overlarge number of “No” ballots. But because the process was public, and not part of an algorithmic black box, the scrutineers could be called out. Although Canada does use electronic voting at the municipal level, the stakes are lower.
 Hilariously, a Google search on “How many countries use paper ballots” directs me to a WikiPedia page on “Electronic voting by country.” 26 are listed. There are 195 countries.
 The convenience of election officials seems to bulk large in these disucussions; they don’t want to be “up all night counting paper.” Well, if the Germans (and the Canadians (and the Brits)) can make that investment in democracy, why can’t we?