Print Politics

Voting Trials and Paper Trails

Efforts to eliminate ballot printing from the voting process fall flat. Why? Because all legitimate business and government dealings need a paper trail.

There's something special about paper, and I'm not saying that just because I work in the printing industry. Paper proves things, it makes contracts legitimate, and in a world of ever-shifting digitized information, it can be an anchor, just as it was when it was first invented and it played a major role in anchoring the human mind to the written word.

The other day, I was getting my car insured, and I was amazed by the amount of paperwork still involved. My insurance agent laughed at my surprise and told me that since they've started doing everything on computers, the amount of paperwork has only grown.

This got me thinking about how we can possibly hold legitimate federal elections using only digital information. If that was really a foolproof medium, couldn't we all just vote online?

The MySpace Primaries that seem, if anything, to be making the point that the idea of holding a legitimate election over the internet is a ridiculous proposition. But I did a bit of research into the subject, and discovered that basically, all methods of voting are skewed at best, and at worst, hopelessly inaccurate. Ever since voting by secret ballot became the “in” thing way back in the mid-1800s, voting in federal elections has been exposed to every form of tampering.

Trying to prevent the heinous crime of ballot tampering is not some unique concept that HAVA put together in 2002. The first people to try to fight ballot tamper were printers, who tried to print ballots so secure that they couldn't be faked. Unfortunately, this was almost impossible, as even if voters couldn't find ways to fit their own candidates' names on the ballots (it happened!), ballot counters were constantly under suspicion.

I read an article on the PBS website on the subject, and the author wrote about how, in the late 19th century, this safemaker named Jacob H. Myers invented a mechanical lever vote-counting machine, which he said would “protect mechanically the voter from rascaldom, and make the process of casting the ballot perfectly plain, simple, and secret.”

The machines were used all over the U.S. until we realized that the machines were just as easy to tamper with as paper ballots had been. On top of that, if they broke down, they created massive errors in voting data, and it was impossible to pinpoint when they had broken down and begun to skew the results.

Hmm, sound familiar?

The lever system eventually fell out of favor because we decided – surprise, surprise – that to have a proper election, you needed a paper trail. That's how the joint ballot-machine system came into being. No one's saying it was perfect, but it was certainly better, it would seem, than a return to pure machine voting.

Travel a century into the future, to 2004, when electronic voting was introduced. Electronic voting machines were supposed to make voting easy and accessible, solving the problems we had in 2002. Then there were all these problems with vote counting, massive irregularities (such as more votes than voters in certain areas), and general sentiment that the presence of the machines made voting easy for some and highly problematic for others.

Political scientists who have studied the problem in-depth insist that it is impossible to conduct a fair and accurate vote with no paper trail. Of course, any printer worth their union label could have told you that! The fact is that computers have, as my insurance agent explained, generated the need for even more paper and paperwork for every industry. Why would it be any different for a process as important as voting?

Computers are wonderful. They are THE invention of this era, but they will never eliminate the need for paper. Those fretting over the future of the printing industry just need to relax and wait for the natural adjustment period to smooth out. In the meantime, we should try to avoid making over-enthusiastic attempts to replace paper with digital information, especially in areas where having solid proof and binding contracts can make a huge difference to the outcome of events,like, say, elections.

There is something special about paper. It was THE invention of its era, just like the printing press was THE invention of its era. Somehow, we'll all have to find a way to get along.

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