In the Absurd Argument Department

A Damaging Paper Chase In Voting

By Timothy J. Ryan

Saturday, September 8, 2007; Page A15

When early jet aircraft crashed, Congress did not mandate that all planes remain propeller-driven. But this is the kind of reactionary thinking behind two bills that would require that all voting machines used in federal elections produce a voter-verifiable paper record. These bills — the Ballot Integrity Act (S. 1487), and the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act (H.R. 811) — are understandable backlashes to the myriad problems encountered in the implementation of electronic voting.
Paperless Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines, those where votes are entered into computers and stored only in computer memory banks, have encountered numerous failures and no longer inspire public trust. The response proposed in these Senate and House bills is for all such machines to produce paper receipts that voters can examine to ensure that their votes were correctly cast. The goal — a double-check of the machine tally — is worthy. Unfortunately, paper records are no panacea for the shortcomings of machines, and mandating paper removes the incentive for researchers to develop better electronic alternatives.
This sort of reasoning is why Ryan is still a research ‘assistant’ at Brookings. They no doubt require him to wear a large ‘L’ tee-shirt while he researches.
It is not the business of election technology to create incentives for industry. It is the business of elections, Tim, to provide reasonable assurance of legitimacy and honesty in the procedure. This is why election judges have not yet been replaced by machines. It accounts for why the scandals in both Florida and Ohio (which quite possibly seated two unelected presidencies) are of concern to earnest Republicans and Democrats who do not currently work at Brookings.
We struggle to remain a representative form of government–a republic.
That struggle forms itself around the core issue of accountability. It would be hard to find a greater irrelevancy to that struggle than “providing an incentive for researchers to develop better electronic alternatives.”
Nice try, though.

* For more in-depth articles by Jim on Washington at Work, check out

4 thoughts on “In the Absurd Argument Department

  1. I’m sorry, but if he’s wrong, so are you. No one is arguing DREs should not have a reliable audit trail. But paper, at least in the short term, doesn’t work.

    Case in point one. Several districts in California tried it already. It was a complete disaster as the printers jammed so badly they had to be disconnected. Anyone who’s had a receipt stuck in an ATM should understand this.

    Two. Everyone clamoring for federal election overhaul ignores the fact that local election officials don’t want it. Never have. What they do want is the money that went unfunded from HAVA by the administration so that they can replace outdated systems with mandated newer technologies that they’ve been unwilling or able to purchase because of the hold up created by all the clamoring. They also want to install systems they feel will fit the needs of their constituents the best they can.

    Three. State and local election officials repeatedly emphasize that the paper trails can’t be put in place by the next election. I know its hard to believe, but it takes a long time to get systems up and running, and poll workers properly trained. Something woefully missed by most people talking about election reform. Proper poll worker education would take care of many, many problems.

    Which leads to four. All elections can be rigged. Period. The cries to go to paper balloting alone are ridiculous for so many reasons, which I’ll cover in a minute. But you think ballot box stuffing can’t occur? Or that ballots can’t get lost? Or that cotton balls in the tray of a lever machine can’t cause hanging chads. Or that scantrons can’t be programmed badly, and the forms altered? The entire voting apparatus in this country is built on the trust given local election officials. If one of them wants to rig an election, there isn’t a hell of a lot anyone can do about it. DREs, in someways, actually help prevent this as access to the vote is harder after it is cast.

    Five. DREs increase turnout, or at least increase the accuracy of voting by certain constituencies, such as those below the poverty line. Google Michael Schiff.

    Six. Why exactly is it the federal governments responsibility to research new voting technologies and to manufacture them? Competition is a good thing. Which is why we have anti-trust laws in this country. And isn’t the malfeasance of the administration at the top of that government what most of the conspiracy theories believe the rigging stem from the? You’re willing to trust them?

    Seven, and by far most importantly, no one ever talks about why DREs were implemented in the first place. HAVA addresses two issues here. One, every polling place in America is required to have at least one DRE in place for disability access. You might not want to see or admit it, but this is a huge issue. DREs are incredibly important to accurate voting, free from bias, for people with mobility, visual, cognitive, learning, and certain psychiatric disabilities (before the inevitable question, even depression can cause certain severe cognitive impairments), because of their speech and touchscreen capabilities. The NYTimes, amongst others, have argued that disability advocates are holding meaningful reform hostage. If we are (I have a severe learning disability, and have no idea if my provisional scantron vote, required because of a local bureaucratic SNAFU, was correct or even processed in 2004), good for us. Would you make the same argument if the year were 1962, and the demographic were Southern African-Americans? Before DREs, many people with disabilities had to rely on the grace of others to cast their vote for them, sometimes even, you guessed it, local election officials. But I guess the right to a private vote isn’t exactly important, is it? Not for the crips and speds anyway. Until every vote is counted in this country, none are. And we aren’t very flexible on this issue.

    Oh yeah, that’s even assuming we can get to the damn voting place. In 2000 it was found that 87% of all polling places (over 30,000) in America had one OR MORE ADA access violations. And we’re not just talking over-tall curbs here. One paraplegic in DC wrote a report about how he showed up at his local polling place, only to find it was in a basement with no elevator access. When he somehow got downstairs, the voting area was on the other side of a steel door that only opened outwards. Of course, people could always rely on the kindness of strangers to go fetch one or two election officials who might be willing to bring a ballot or machine to the curbside. A Colorado congressman (Thomas-R) tried to protect just this practice in the House version of HAVA for districts under a certain population density. I’m sure most of the 54 million Americans with disabilities are more than amenable to going back to those days.

    Second access point. The 1965 Voting Rights Act requires precincts to provide ballots in languages other than English where the district has a certain percentage of foreign language speaking citizens. DREs save the precinct money here because its far more efficient to program a computer to print in a foreign language than it is to actually have to print ballots in a foreign language. One which may or may not be read accurately by election officials. Of course, we could take the Tancredo route, and require all the Mexicans, Vietnamese and Chinese to speak English or go home, but until then, we have that law.

    Which presents local election officials with a really, really, really, really enormously huge problem. If the paper trail bills pass, they can’t use the HAVA mandated DREs. Which opens them to Federal lawsuits from people with disabilities and leads to higher costs, borne largely by underfunded local precincts, of accommodating foreign language speakers. Oops. I think the bills are trying to rectified this lovely oversight, but, of course, at the expense of disability access. Again, who cares about them, right?

    Finally, chiding Mr. Ryan for being “only a research assistant” is juvenile. He researched this issue for a living. I could just as easily refer to you as only a blogger.

  2. One last point, and then I’ll stop my rambling and possibly over-rude post. It would be easy to suggest that the HAVA rule on DREs (one per polling place for disability access) should be left in place while able-bodied Americans use alternative voting systems. But this opens up another whole series of problems. The first is cost. And not just in foreign language balloting. Requiring states and precincts to use two different systems also incurs a higher pricetag. Second, using a dual system solution creates the need for double the poll worker training. Already problematic enough because of election official’s misunderstandings of state and federal laws, but also because of time and budget constraints. Third, it also creates the potential for further lawsuits as it could be perceived as a “separate but equal” system.

    Finally, I should point out that anyone peeved over the HAVA DRE provisions should contact their representative, particularly if they’re a Democrat. You see, it was the Democratic caucus who pushed for these inclusions. Largely at the urging of that nasty conservative lobbying group, the Leadership Council on Civil Rights.

  3. I find the issue of supporting HR-811 a shoe-in when you understand what the bill actually does target and successfully accomplish, rather than focusing on what we wish it did.

    Many activists, and apparently some congressfolk such as Rules Committee Chair Louise Slaughter, are hung up on “solving” the problem of faulty voting machines, or eliminating them. Consider this:
    * “Solving” faulty voting machine results would take the equivalent of a very expensive state gaming/gambling commission’s worth of electronic monitoring and regulatory oversight.
    * Eliminating “DREs” isn’t remotely politically feasible right now, because the public isn’t behind it. (You can just imaging Florida 2000 ‘hanging chad’ video being played over & over…)

    HR-811, however, isn’t about “fixing” for now. It’s about simple, relatively inexpensive “auditing”. Whether some voters sleep through their VVPAT moment or not, the audit will prove a voting machine’s (and typially the software release, equipment model and vendor’s) erroneous counts.

    With auditing, if these voting machines are as bad (and perhaps as vulnerable to fraud) as they surely seem to be, 2008 will be a watershed year in widespread public awareness of a horrific corruption of our democracy.

    Then more comprehensive reforms such as a DRE ban and re-structuring/eliliminating the EAC will become politically viable.

    More “black box voting” in ’08 is the real horror, not HR-811.

  4. Business-101. Define the problem before rushing to the quickest fix. Since 2000, we’ve slammed in a grab-bag of solutions without wholly identifying the problem. Yes, we need reliable voting machines and tighter, better, wiser controls.

    But, if we are to secure one voter, one vote…every-time integrity in our election process, we must also look to our election laws. Computers, paper, people will fail. Until we fix election laws to catch up with technology, our election processes will continue to be broken. ALL voting machines aside… Election laws must recognize technological voting anomalies. Our 2000 debacle with the pregnant chads resulted from failure to maintain the voting equipment properly. However it was the failure of Florida’s election laws that permitted the chaos that followed. In 2006, it was the failure of Florida’s election laws that permitted an election with statistically improbable results to stand (Sarasota’s 18,000 undervotes). Had Florida’s election laws been on par with technology, both elections would have been an automatic re-do.

    While the heroine in A MARGIN OF ERROR: BALLOTS OF STRAW scoffs at the notion of a silent coup marching across America in her fictitious voting machines…. It could happen more easily than any of us want to believe.

    Lani Massey Brown, MARGIN OF ERROR: BALLOTS OF STRAW, political intrigue of a stolen election, Amazon com.

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