Poll Wars: Return of the paper ballots

The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!

That’s the fear surrounding the 2018 elections in some quarters, anyway. Despite repeated assurances that foreign agents were unable to hack into our electoral machinery and change any of the vote totals, concerns remain that they are at least trying to do so and steps are being taken to minimize the risk. Chief among these is a growing demand that we return to paper ballots for voting or at least some system which provides a paper trail. State leaders are listening and some of them are already in the process of doing so. (Boston Globe)

Hoping to counter waves of Russian Twitter bots, fake social media accounts, and hacking attacks aimed at undermining American democracy, state election officials around the country are seizing on an old-school strategy: paper ballots.

In Virginia, election officials have gone back to a paper ballot system, as a way to prevent any foreign interference. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolfe this month ordered county officials to ensure new election equipment produces a paper record. Georgia lawmakers are considering legislation to replace a touch-screen voting system with paper.

Top election officials around the country are growing increasingly alarmed about this fall’s midterm elections, with a drumbeat of dire warning signs that Russia is determined to influence them. And many are concerned that President Trump has not focused on the potential for more attacks on America’s election system like the one Russia launched in 2016.

At this point, it doesn’t matter whether or not the Russians have the ability to hack our voting machines or any of the infrastructure used to report and record the results. The fact is that anything relying on internet connectivity is subject to an attack from somewhere and it’s a valid cause for concern. If the nation’s biggest banks can’t stop their systems from being hacked (and they’re protecting vast sums of money), then there’s probably somebody out there who’s already figured out the weaknesses in the voting system.

Even if we’re not going all the way back to a system where the only local record is a stack of paper ballots, having a paper trail is a big plus. We can’t predict the outcome of every race based on the polls, as we learned all too well in November of 2016, but we can come up with a fairly close prediction. If we see one area suddenly ringing up some numbers that are completely off the bell curve of probability, that area can be put on hold while the paper ballots are compared to the electronically recorded results.

Having something on paper will also improve the confidence the voters have in the system’s integrity. As I’ve mentioned here in the past, the voting machines currently in use in many parts of New York do use a paper ballot but the machine is an optical scanner. It “reads” your selections and, if it’s satisfied that the circles are filled in properly, it simply makes a “thunking” sound and tells you the vote was recorded. It does not, however, show you who you voted for in any of the races so you have no idea if it recorded your choices accurately.

These changes are going to cost money, but we really shouldn’t be skimping on this. Our technophile society has rushed rapidly into 21st-century voting technology without fully thinking through the risks.