Thursday, November 10, 2016

The case for hand counted paper ballots

In light of the shocking outcome of the federal election it seems frivolous to talk about the method in which ballots are cast, yet, in search of something lighter than the consequences of our general election, here it goes:
lines at the scanner (SUN photo)

After years of touch-screen voting, Maryland  voting was once again conducted by paper ballots. But the State didn't renounce finicky electronics altogether:  At the end of voting the paper ballots had to be fed into a scanner that also acted as the ballot box.  This last step also turned out to be the slowest element in the procedure of checking incoming voters, handing out the ballots and actually filling the ballots by hand. The only automated element the voter came in contact with was also the bottleneck. With usually just one scanner per precinct, this was the achilles heel, the most vulnerable part. Failure would bring a whole precinct to a halt until a replacement was installed. The scanner, scanning both sides of an odd shaped piece of paper at the same time, is also a fairly specialized piece of electronics, not something one can buy at Best Buys.
Emptying the ballot box in Germany

When I lived in Germany I was selected as a election judge for almost all elections during my adult time there. Based on  that experience and my years of voting in the US with various types of machines, I have concluded that voting is one of the very few cases were the past can really be a guide for the future. I.e. the low-tech paper ballot marked with a pencil and deposited in a simple ballot box persistently outperforms any mechanized or electronic contraption supposedly in place to aid voter access or increase reliability or speed. Punch cards ("hanging chads", touch screens (no paper trail) and scanners (lost thumb drives) all had hick-ups large enough to question their utility. And that is even before one factors in cost.
electronic touch screen voting: safe?

The expenditure for voting machines is significant and the money sits around as dead capital 99% of the time, even if the machines would work perfectly. Given the speed in which anything electronic is out of date, the investment is even more questionable.

Countries that vote and count by hand almost always out-perform countries using mechanized and electronic machines in terms of election judge training and efficiency, opening and closing on time and having an overall flawless process. Surprisingly, hand-counting outperforms electronic tallying as well. The reason? Hard to tell. In spite of the result being instantaneous after retrieving a memory stick from a scanner and sticking it into a computer, precinct reporting in Baltimore City took hours in the last Primary and General Election. As we know, various issues even brought about a decertification in the primaries.

By contrast, when I counted ballots by hand, we usually telephoned in the results withing 20-40 minutes after turning the ballot box over. And sometimes we had complicated local election ballots with 60 or more candidates in which cumulative voting was allowed. The precinct results, though, were fed into a computer by information crunching companies that tried to predict the results based on statistically relevant samples. The relevant sample precincts were informed ahead so they would count fast and call in fast. A more precise second count tallying the official number would follow. In this manner overall election results with just 1-2% margin of error were provided to the public withing one hour after the precincts closed, even in the seventies far faster than most jurisdictions in this past election when results trickle in straight up with no regard for their statistical relevance.
returning with the ballots

Checking in: Searching the electronic records

My appointment as election judge was like for jury duty, it wasn't entirely clear how the selection was made, but once on the list, it was hard to get off. Like for jury duty, one needs a really good excuse to not show up. Excuses are harder to come by because the German elections are held on Sundays when schools (the most common polling stations) are closed anyway. So elections don't cost too many lost work hours and no lost learning time.

Manual voting and counting is widespread in Europe and across the world to this day. Many countries in Europe experimented with various types of electronic voting machines on a limited test base only to reject the method at the end, mostly due concerns about hacking, privacy and potential for fraud.

I think it is time for the States in the US to consider the simplest way to have a voting process free of hick-ups. Hand counted paper ballots is just the right ticket. Low cost, low maintenance, low training, fool-proof and repeatable on demand. It beats everything else on all counts. Maybe one day when Internet voting is safe and one can use common daily devices like a smart phone, the use of electronics will make sense. In the meantime, buying voting machines of any kind  seems like a waste of money.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
paper ballot: fool proof, time tested