Vote of Confidence: The Mobile Doubters and Paper (Voting) Tigers

In 1920, The New York Times famously made the contention that “no rocket will ever leave the earth’s atmosphere.”  In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit, smashing the Times’ prediction and launching the world’s two major powers into a space race that would characterize global politics for the next 12 years.  The paper’s bold claim is just one example of the consistent trend, one that has persisted throughout documented human history, to undermine the possibility of a progressive technology before it reaches its true potential.  The voting space has a particularly strong luddite streak and it is one of the biggest hurdles for innovation and the improvement of democracy.


We have written about the technological issues that face the voting machines in the US before on this blog. It is pretty evident that, as our voting infrastructure currently stands, we are in really bad shape.  In a glimmer of hope, the recent Omnibus Bill passed in Congress allocates $380 million to shore up the nation’s voting infrastructure; a sorely needed allocation.  The problem, however, is that there seems to be a strong push towards bringing back paper-based systems as the standard for elections. This notion is buttressed by a bipartisan bill in Congress, the Secure Elections Act, that, if passed, would “drive a stake through the heart of paperless voting” for public elections in the US.  As we are a mobile voting company, it seems prudent to explore two of the most prominent arguments for paper and why we believe that they will not hold up.


Paper provides the best audit trail:

The argument here is that, with a paper record, there is a relatively inalterable trail that can be referenced to verify and audit election results.  Furthermore, this argument maintains that paper is the easiest form of record to secure. There is creedence to both of these claims. If the votes were cast accurately on paper, no votes were lost or compromised, and there is enough time and manpower to audit these paper ballots, then the system works well for administrators.  Our issue with this process is based around the voting public elections are meant to serve. For whom is this system auditable? Sure, election administrators can review the submitted paper ballots at their discretion, but the voter loses all agency once they drop their ballot in the box. There is no verifiable way to know if that ballot made it to its final destination, was counted as cast, and secured in a safe place. There is absolutely no element of verifiability for the voter with a paper ballot and trail; voters ultimately have to trust the word of election administrators.


Paper is the most secure:

The most recent DefCon conference bolstered the notion that our nation’s voting machines are extremely susceptible to hacking. Paper, on the other hand, is not.  An individual can ruin, change, or dispose of one ballot with ease, but the same action is nearly impossible on a large scale. If someone enters a digital vote database, they can alter all the votes they can get their hands on.  We at Votem generally agree that the lack of security with current voting machines is deplorable. That does not mean we should rely on an antiquated system that is expensive, inaccurate, and inaccessible for many.  The current security standards for polling places and counting stations certainly do not hold up.  For example, when money is transferred between banks, it is accompanied by armed guards in an armored vehicle.  Unless we are missing something, it is uncommon to see armored vehicles filled with ballots being transported from one location to another.  The fact of the matter is there is no explicit proof that foreign entities tampered with actual voting machines. Sure, they may have tried, but it is clear that most of their efforts went towards changing opinion and not votes cast. We would be remiss to completely ignore some benefits of paper voting, it just begs the question; “why go backward when we can go forward?”  


Recently, states like Montana, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania all adopted some form of mobile engagement for their constituents; furthermore more than 30 countries around the world are working to trial and deploy secure mobile systems (the Scottish Government just announced e-Voting pilots). While this is far from widespread adoption, it is clear the governments are looking for options to making voting more accessible and secure.  All we can do is hope that new funds are allocated towards making our system better, not older.


In the next issue, we’ll explore other issues around in-person, paper-based elections and why we believe the time is right to move forward to more accessible and secure means of voting.