Saying Yes to Paper Ballots


An editorial in last Thursday's Deseret News got a little hot under the collar over the current debate over what to do with electronic voting. It said, in part:

The concern is understandable, of course. New inventions make nervous Nellies of us all. People once feared that microwave ovens would make them sterile or that garage door openers might lead to cancer. Humorist James Thurber recalled that his mother would never leave light sockets open in the house because she was convinced electricity would leak out, costing her money and threatening her health.

Such things are often the source of urban folk legends. Trepidation before the unknown is a natural human reaction.

Overcoming that trepidation, however, is the mark of education and understanding.

Right now, some people are worried there are gremlins in the current voting machines --- that electronic voting is unreliable and open to tampering. They spout anecdotal evidence of irregularities here and there to fuel their fear and want paper ballot backups to fend off any conspirators. It's the same kind of itchy-witchy thinking that leads people to hide bags of money under their mattresses.

And dare we say that almost all of those those skittish souls are likely older than 40? The younger generation sees the outcry for the tangible comfort of paper ballots as a hallmark of the fuddy-duddy. The notion sounds, to young ears, like people demanding election results be chiseled into granite for security.
From deseretnews.com | Vote 'no' on paper ballots
Referenced Tue May 29 2007 08:44:57 GMT-0600 (MDT)

The Deseret News would do well to check their facts before they fly off the handle on this one. The fact is that the people most worried are computer scientists--the people least likely to be afraid of computers merely because they're new.

Jay Lepreau of the CS department at the University of Utah and I published an Op-Ed piece on eVoting in the Salt Lake Tribune in 2004. In that piece we noted "The consensus of computer and security experts is overwhelming: In a poll of members of the ACM, the premier organization for computing professionals, over 95 percent of the respondents felt that voting systems should provide a recountable physical record, e.g., paper." In other words, the people most educated in this area are the ones most concerned.

Congress forced the hands of states in dumping their old voting systems and buying new ones. Most went with so-called DRE touch screen systems like the State of Utah. Utah was smart enough to pass a law requiring a paper audit trail, but apparently the equipment Utah bought won't comply with new Federal regulations in this area.

It's unfortunate that State election officials had to make decisions and spend money before the paint was dry in this debate. The standards are still evolving and experience is showing that the electronic machines do have problems accurately recording votes. Even with paper audit trails, there are problems that are prohibitively expensive to find with audits.

It may seem that as the Feds change the rules, the states have no choice but to continue to change out their electronic voting machines over and over again to comply, but it turns out there is an alternative to the DRE voting machines. Florida recently scrapped it's touch screen machines with optical scan paper ballots. Florida was one of the states that had both--letting the counties decide. After using both, they went for the optical scan system.

That's a safe haven--one that was available to Utah officials in 2004 when they made their decision to go with the current system. Its still a safe haven and the most likely to be future proof as technology and standards continue to evolve. If we do end up scrapping our current machines and having to replace them, let's replace them with something that will stand the test of time.