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I worked the polls in Fairfax, Virginia on election day 2012. I opened the door at 6:00 am, logged voters in, operated the machines, and passed out "I voted" stickers on the way out. At 10:00 pm when our results had been tabulated and machines disassembled, I signed official documents to "certify that this statement of results and write-in certification are a complete record of this election and that all of the information entered here is true and correct."

I signed it. But it isn't true. I can certify no such thing.

There was no fraud. I saw none and certainly did none. Indeed, my fellow poll workers were all intelligent, efficient and sincere. The monitors from both sides who watched us appeared concerned about nothing but recording who had voted and the integrity of the process.

But I truly have no idea what happened inside the black box of the electronic voting machines. I don't know if the machines dropped one of every 100 Obama votes or added it to Romney. I don't know if the machines periodically stopped recording votes in this relatively Democratic precinct. (Small discrepancies could easily tilt a close election without triggering alarms).

Here's what I do know.

I know that our touch-screen machines were slow to boot-up and had technical difficulties that made them unavailable when the polls opened at six. I know that the second of our three machines had multiple problems during the day, requiring regular shut downs and re-boots. I know that our optical scanner for paper ballots sometimes rejected ballots for no reason, though a quick kick or vigorous shake would set it working again.

In short, they are machines. They are subject to the same failures and foibles as any machine. They are also subject to hacking, code problems and file corruption.

The ATM at my bank prints out a receipt. The supermarket passes me a receipt after I buy groceries with my credit card. We document plenty of electronic transactions on paper, giving people a chance to examine them for accuracy or file them for later. But not voting?

My friend who worked as an election monitor at the UN and has observed elections in places like Cambodia and South Africa once remarked, "I would never certify electronic touch-screens without a paper-trail as 'Free and Fair.'"

The solution is easy. The touch-screen could print a receipt, like an ATM. The voter can examine it to ensure that it accurately reflects his or her vote, then drop it in a lock box. We can enjoy the efficiencies and advantages of instant results and real-time electronic calculations ... but if anything goes wrong, we have evidence in a lock box. Or we can stick to optical scanners that start with bubbles filled on paper and tabulate results electronically-- but keep the paper afterward.

In my precinct on Tuesday I could honestly certify that our touch-screen displayed zero votes when it opened and 815 when it closed, with Obama over Romney by 514 to 294. As for whether that's "true and correct" -- I have no idea and nobody ever will. We're just trusting the machine.

Sure we need higher-level solutions too. I'd like to see longer voting hours, more days, easier registration and so forth. I'd like to get the money out of politics and end corporate personhood, blah blah blah. But at the very least we need to ensure that a count is a count. Electronics are great. But we need a paper trail.

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Comment Preferences

  •  A bit over two decades ago (11+ / 0-)

    I was not yet drinking age when I saw an ATM chew up, mutilate, and swallow an envelope containing two paychecks and my girlfriend's college aid check (she'd signed it over to me to cash because she didn't have a bank account). I didn't get a receipt either, as the machine didn't realize that it had sucked the envelope into the gears rather than processing it properly. The bank manager told me there was nothing in the depository, so I must be "mistaken", despite the fact that I had told him from the outset that the machine had not functioned as designed and that the pieces of the envelope were somewhere in the internal workings. It took weeks to get the whole thing straightened out (the bank eventually found the shredded checks, possibly because other, older and more credible customers had had the same experience) and you can imagine how my girlfriend felt about it.

    That experience taught me a very valuable lesson--when you cannot afford to trust a machine and you have the option not to do so, don't.

    My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.
    --Carl Schurz, remarks in the Senate, February 29, 1872

    by leftist vegetarian patriot on Thu Nov 08, 2012 at 07:56:04 AM PST

  •  Paper ballots are better (3+ / 0-)

    I also worked as election officer in a Fairfax County precinct, and I came to the conclusion that we should scrap the touchscreen machines and just go to paper balloting.  There are at least two reasons for this.  The first one is the one you mentioned, that with paper ballots there is a paper trail that can be used to verify if the result is challenged.

    But what really struck me is simply the time factor.  We had only three touchscreen machines in a precinct that, like many, saw its highest turnout ever.  After the 30-90 minute wait for check-in, there was another 15-30 minute line for the touchscreens, whereas paper ballot voters were sent immediately to the front of the line.  Just the same, at least 75 percent of the voters wanted touchscreen, thinking that the touchscreen votes were counted faster or were more legitimate somehow (not true).

    A ballot with three races, four bond issues, and two constitutional amendments took some time for most people to complete, especially those who weren't native English speakers or who weren't steeped in the arcana of government process.    On touchscreen, these voters were holding up others while they figured it out.  Using paper ballots, the voters could take their time completing the ballots in one of the privacy booths (and you could set up almost as many of those as you wanted, its just a cardboard foldout).   Then they would spend a few seconds each feeding their ballots into the scanner.   If there was a mistake, such as voting for more than one candidate for President (that happened several times), the scanner would reject it and the voter would be given a new ballot, again not holding up the line.

    I think if we had gone to paper ballots only and set up 30 or 40 privacy booths, we could have moved the line two to three times faster.    

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