Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Why do we even have voting machines?

Americans, who have grown jaded about machine voting, and distrustful about its integrity at the same time, should be demanding a return to paper ballots.

Word that Hart eSlate voting machines in Texas, which are also commonly used in states like Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, many of them jurisdictions with tight races this election year, are switching party-line votes form one party to the other with disturbing frequency, beg the question that rarely gets asked: Why do we need voting machines at all?

We’ve already lived though the “hanging chad” election  in 2000 which handed the Florida vote, and ultimately the whole U.S. election, to George W. Bush despite the fact that a later investigation of uncounted ballots showed that Al Gore had actually won Florida and in any case had won the national popular vote by over 500,000.

We’ve also heard of machines switching votes suspiciously in other critical elections.

Interestingly, many modern democratic countries, including some like the U.K. and Taiwan which traditionally have very bitterly fought elections, use paper ballots. This was evident in recent heavily contested vote contests like the ones in Scotland over breaking away from the United Kingdom to become an independent country, the Brexit vote to pull the UK out of the European Union, and the last parliamentary election when the Conservative Party was nearly trounced and ousted by an upstart newly left-leaning insurgent Labour Party, and an election in Taiwan in 2004 in which a pro-independence party candidate, Chen Shui-bien of the Democratic Progressive Party  won re-election by just 0.22 percent (29,500 out of 13.25 million votes cast), all in elections that were conducted using paper ballots.

In the Taiwan case, the election was challenged by the loser, and a recount was done – a complicated process involving every paper ballot in the country was laboriously counted by hand in with each ballot being reviewed by a panel of three judges in each voting district, one from each party contesting the election, and an independent judge. The result – astounding for Americans – was almost identical to the original tally.

When elections in the U.S. are challenged and a recount is ordered, it is largely a joke because so many of the votes done on machine are already lost and only the totals recorded on each machine can be recounted. Vote results in recounts also often produce dramatically different results because of this and other problems.

There is growing concern too that voting machines can be hacked. These concerns are amplified when it turns out that some of the widely used machines are made by companies whose owners are supporters – sometimes even financial supporters – of some of the very candidates whose votes are being counted!

Even when they are not hacked voting machines have a nasty habit of breaking on election day, causing long lines in some election districts which can lead some voters to give up and go home without casting their vote.

Why do we have voting machines? Let’s be clear: It has nothing to do with making voting easier, or with concerns about accuracy. Nor are they a cost-saver; buying the machines or leasing them is expensive as hell, and maintaining them and reading them too, while the printed ballots are cheap and the whole work of counting them is basically volunteer except for salaried government personnel. No, this is all about the speed with which the counting and determination of a victor can be accomplished. Nothing more, nothing less.

And who is behind that concern? The mass media, which spend a lot of money covering political campaigns and hyping them, usually focusing on meaningless petty issues like candidate verbal “gaffes” and the like, and which want voters glued to their T.V. sets and buying their papers on election night and the next morning while they are exposed to a tidal wave of lucrative ads and commercials.

The mass media are loath having the determination of a winner turn into a days-long slog through counting paper ballots, since almost nobody’s going to stay glued to a T.V. or to go out day after day to buy the latest paper just to keep track of that process dragging on and on.

And yet, from the point of actually having a functioning democracy – one in which the public gets really involved and really cares about and trusts the final outcome – paper ballots make much more sense.

Think about it: Paper ballots are easy to understand. You have candidates’ names and party affiliation clearly printed, a box beside each candidate’s name to fill in, a process that is easily understandable and that even computer-addicted young voters unfamiliar with pens and pencils can still manage to do, and a ballot box to slip the ballot into that is locked, only to be opened when the counting begins under the watchful eye of independent observers and observers from the competing party organizations. And finally you end up with have a result that can be easily replicated and checked if there is a close vote as in Taiwan in 2004, and a recount is required.

Americans, who have grown jaded about machine voting, and distrustful about its integrity at the same time, should be demanding a return to paper ballots.

The media can wait for the results with the rest of us.

Good journalists and editors know that it’s always a mistake to rush a story in order to be the first to get it out, instead of focusing on getting it right. And yet when it comes to probably the single most important thing about a functioning democracy – having a simple and accurate voting system for electing candidates and on ballot initiatives – they have pushed the system to do the opposite: to give them results – any results – as quickly as possible and the hell with accuracy,

This has to stop. We need to do what the Brits and the Taiwanese, and so many far more functional and representative democracies than our own do, and go back to using paper ballots for our elections.

Then we can throw out the rotten-to-the-core Citizens United ruling and other laws and election rules that allow the rich and corporations to buy elections and require public funding of candidates and ballot initiatives, so that We the People can really run what is supposed to be our country.

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