By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Election Eve feels like a good time to write about voting, if only to avoid the horror of focusing on the results of the actual vote that is about to take place. We’ve written a lot of posts on voting at NC. Most have been heavily researched. To link to a fair sampling:
- September 9, 2012 (“What Voting Can Look Like“)
- November 15, 2017 (“Hand-Marked Paper Ballots and Virginia’s 2017 Elections“)
- September 2, 2016 (“What India Can Teach the US About Free and Fair Elections“)
- March 3, 2019 (“Corruption Fueling Choice of “Ballot Marking Devices,” not Paper Ballots, in Georgia, Pennsylvania Debacles“)
- November 10, 2019 (“Electronic Voting Machine Debacle Continues in 2019, Setting Dangerous Precedent for 2020“)
- January 23, 2020 (“Why I Am Worried About the Legitimacy of the 2020 Election Balloting Process“)
- November 2, 2020 (“Voting Turnout: Three Simple Ways to Get Out the Vote“)
- May 27, 2020 (“5 Ways to Make Voting Easier for Everyone in America—Even in a Pandemic“)
- November 29, 2019 (“Los Angeles County to Intoduce VSAP E-Voting System: NOT Hand-Marked, NOT Paper, NOT Hand-Counted in Public“)
- June 10, 2020 (“Yesterday’s Georgia Primary Voting Debacle: A Preview of November’s General Election?“)
Today, I’m going to take a different tack entirely. Rather than present research, I’m going to try reasoning from postulates and first principles, and do hardly any research at all. I will then present a plan that satisfies them. (Sadly, I will find myself in unaccustomed territory here, since it turns out one major feature of the plan is supported by conservatives.) I hope readers will take this as a starting point and add features (or dispute them). I’d particularly like to hear from readers with international experience.
The original text of the Constitution does not explicitly institute a right for citizens to vote. (I tried to find some Federalist Papers quotes on this topic, but what a mess it was.) However, the 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th amendments all begin “The right of citizens of the United States… to vote” and remove limitations to the franchise based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” “sex”, “failure to pay poll tax or other tax”, and “eighteen years of age” respectively, so I think we can assume that such a right exists. In this post, I’ll focus on how that right should be exercised, at the ballot box, in the precinct, so that election theft may be prevented and a fair ballot count performed. (Important but out of scope for this post are gerrymandering and voter rolls. Voter rolls are often digital and therefore problematic see postulate (I) above.)
Of elections and election technology, I postulate:
(I). Digital = hackable;
(II). The financial stakes for any election are enormous;
(III). Phishing, in essence, is the proposition that if fraud can happen, it will already have happened. (Phishing is ubiquitous, especially in a financialized economy. See Shiller and Akerlof on this point.)
For election theft, digital speaks to means, financial speaks to motive, and phishing speaks to opportunity (everywhere). We should, in other words, create policy on the basis of the worst case scenario that the electoral system is run by a criminal class, and create checks and balances that prevent the crooks from taking it over and corrupting the results. It’s the only way to be sure.
Here are the principles that I devised. I’m sure readers will let me know in comments if I missed anything! This is what universal suffrage should look like. Insofar as possible:
(A). Every citizen should have an equal chance to vote.
• Here I have in mind less Voting Rights Act-type discrimination, which is real and wrong, but precinct-level shenanigans (see below),
(B). Every voter should have the ability to vote from same fact set.
• It’s really ridiculous — picking one example from many — that people could have voted for Fetterman before seeing his debate performance. To pick hypotheticals, it would be ridiculous to have voted for Biden before he nuked Ukraine, or Trump before he pardoned all his buddies. Yes, one can say “my mind is made up,” or “vote Blue no matter who”, or, with Hunter Thompson, “Freak Power” (lots of good ideas here), but that’s a hypothetical too. Further, I think our electoral system should seek to reduce the baleful influence of partisanship and priors, not increase it. Needless to say, I don’t agree with Democrat think tank Brookings bizarre proposal for “election month.”
(C). Every voter’s ballot should be marked and counted using the same process.
• Hone the process. Perfect it. Standardize it. How many ways can there be to count a paper ballot?
(D). Voting should be funded as the essential public service it is.
• This includes hand-counting, if need be, but also accommodations.
Here is the plan I devised to satisfy the principles given the postulates. Under the elections clause, Congress should:
(1). Declare election day (this year, November 8, tomorrow) a national holiday (i.e., paid). No early voting. No drop boxes. Mail-in only for those physically unable to travel to the precinct; nursing homes, the military, overseas voters, etc.
• Meets principle (A); nobody needs to work on Election Day.
• Meets principle (B): all vote at the same time.
(2). Mandate that the default voting system for all precincts must be hand-marked paper ballots, hand-counted in public (modulo accomodations in point (3) below.
• Meets principle (C), based on postulates (I), (II), and (III).
(3). Accomodations (disabilities; language; transport) should be Federally mandated and funded (by principle (D)) at the precinct level.
• Meets principle (A).
(4) Election resources should be evenly distributed across precincts, and remediation funded (by principle (D)) if need be.
• Here, I am thinking of games partisan election administrators play, like long lines in some precincts, or ballots running short, etc. I think very little of this is done in good faith. At the same time, “evenly” is doing a lot of work, and regulations would need to be developed to institutionalize it.
(5) Counting, and ballot-handing generally, should not be performed by party members.
• See principles (II) and (III). Example.
(6) Assistance for voter IDs, where mandated, should be Federally mandated and funded (by principle (D)).
• Meets principle (A). I don’t much like voter IDs (much less national IDs). I prefer the system where my church ladies carefully cross my name off a list when I tell them what it is. But, if voter IDs are what we must have, it’s absurd that poor people, or the housebound, the disabled, or former felons, have to jump through hoops to get them.
Again, I’m sure readers will let me know in comments what I missed! Now let’s take a look at the approaches each of the two parties are taking
The Democrats seem to focus on making voting more convenient (mail-in ballots, drop-boxes, early voting). In fact, they’ve ended up making it more complicated; they love homework, and so we get officious nonsense like “Make a plan to vote.” (Yeah, my plan is to down to my precinct on election day, a holiday, and cast my paper ballot along with everyone else. Sheesh.) They focus much less on giving people a reason to vote (see last week’s dithering about so-called “closing arguments”). They focus hardlly at all on expanding the voter base.
The Republicans, in my view, think much more strategically. They are focusing on electing (or muscling) officials who control the election machinery, just as, in earlier days, they focused on electing their people to school boards. (Democrats, then as now, express aghastitude but remain oddly passive.) Further, they are taking advantage of the additional attack surface provided by the Democrat tactic of convenience: Staging goons outside drop-boxes, fulminating against mail-in ballots. etc. And of course overly tight yarn diagrams.
You can see that neither party is what I would call “principled,” and neither focuses on election theft, no doubt because both prefer to hold that ultimate weapon in reserve for situations like Iowa 2020 (see Principle I). For my plan — as modified by you, dear readers — to be adopted, both parties would have to accept paper ballots (which, oddly or not, Republicans are more likely to do). Democrats would have to surrender “convenience” as a value. Republicans would have to accept universal standards for voting (and stop yammering about “Federalism,” which they are wont to do).
Would both parties agree to a voting system designed to avoid election theft, count all votes fairly, and treat all voters equally? Hard to say, at this point. But worth thinking about!
 I mean “election theft,” stealing an election by corrupting the results (as Jeb Bush did for his brother George in Florida 2000, by corrupting the voter rolls). I do not mean “voter fraud,” much beloved of Republicans but apparently minimally practiced. Election theft, given that it’s practiced by insiders, could be thought of as a form of accounting control fraud.
 Personally, I’m against even digital counting. I believe that digital should be removed from the process entirely (except possibly in cases of accommodation). The only reason I can see for digital counting is “convenience,” which should be abolished as a principle and replaced by mandates and funding. If people don’t want to volunteer — and I think that in many jurisdications they do and will — pay people.
 The current solution for voters with print disabilities has been to use BMDs “audio ballot” with keypad and a headphone jack. This article describes that process, and makes the point that often precincts have ill-trained people when there is only one BMD available, impeding the voter. The solution to that is mandates and funding, not creating an intrinsically hackable and corruptible national electoral system by imposing BMDs on all voters.
 An alternative would be to always have members of all parties present (not two, but all).
 I considered making voting mandatory (as in Australia) but concluded it was a bridge too far. Mandatory voting would certainly give strong incentives to fix broken systems. Readers?
 Worth noting that Arizona’s paper balloting turned out to be robust. Note that I said “robust.” If indeed election fraud was committed, the paper ballots will have enabled it to be detected (though I don’t think this story has broken through anywhere but Rasmussen, and I don’t have the energy to dig into it.)