Vote of Confidence: The Problem with Paper

All voting systems should be held to the highest possible standard. However, there is a discrepancy in the standards applied to paper and electronic systems. While paper is familiar and tangible, paper’s proponents promote its use and advantages without carefully considering its flaws and limitations, despite applying the most rigorous scrutiny to electronic systems without considering their potential benefits.

What really is the value of paper?

The perceived value of paper is permanence and auditability. In elections, Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails (VVPAT) are the standards meant to allow voters to verify their votes and retrospectively insure the accuracy of tabulation.

However, the perceived value afforded by VVPATs is dependent on a few assumptions:

That there exist adequate regulatory frameworks to guarantee that the paper in question is properly preserved

That there exist adequate regulatory frameworks to actually scrutinize the paper against electronic records

That the legislative ability to actually audit the paper is not prohibitively difficult. (1).

Sadly, these assumptions rarely hold true. The lack of procedural and legislative support means the paper trails don’t hold any value because the paper trails do not accomplish what advocates claim they do: namely, reliable recount-ability and tamper detection. Paper trails do not guarantee that votes will be handled properly and provide no assurance to voters that their vote will be counted correctly or even counted at all. The only thing the paper trail captures is initial voter intent — this is the “voter verifiability” piece of VVPAT — which is a property easily accomplished by other means that offer greater security. (2).

The Uniform Electronic Transmission Act (UETA), which has been adopted by 47 states, DC, and the Virgin Islands, denotes its purpose as:

“to facilitate… government transaction by validating and authorizing the use of electronic records and electronic signatures… [and to] promote public confidence in the validity, integrity and reliability of…government transactions.”

Clearly stated, electronic records are not only viable for government purposes, but they also are at least legal equivalents to paper records. In many contexts (particularly data retention and auditability), electronic records offer greater security properties, both in practice and in the eyes of the law, than paper records do.

It is possible for to produce mathematical proofs of correctness for each step of the electoral process electronically (see how Votem architects this via Proof of Vote® Protocol) — this provable integrity guarantee is not possible through the use of paper. Paper trails must consist of separate physical pieces of paper (continuity of these pieces would violate voter anonymity); this characteristic of physical trails means the integrity of the trail cannot be guaranteed because the integrity of each individual piece of paper that makes up the trail cannot be guaranteed (there exists the possibility for physical ballot tampering). In an electronic context, specifically through the use of blockchain, every single individual transaction comprising the digital-trail can be mathematically demonstrated to be correct (via Proof of Vote’s consensus mechanism), without sacrificing the desired properties of voter anonymity nor privacy.

Furthermore, while the intention of paper trails is to bolster voter confidence (the assumption is that people trust what is tangible and observable), to say that paper trails actually increase trust is false; in fact, it’s been found that VVPAT can decrease voter confidence in the electoral system.

Ultimately, the same standard to which society holds new technologies should also be applied to currently implemented systems. Digital records are not without shortcomings, but in a technology-inclined world where we can afford accessibility without sacrificing security, neither is paper. To ignore the shortcomings of paper is to foster the longevity of an electoral infrastructure that increasingly disenfranchises the military, those with accessibility considerations, working professionals, people on the move, and other citizens of the modern world. Every eligible citizen who wants to vote, should be able to.

(1) Bernhard, Matthew, et al. “Public Evidence from Secret Ballots.” International Joint Conference on Electronic Voting. Springer, Cham, 2017.

(2) Shamos, Michael Ian. “Paper v. electronic voting records-an assessment.” Proceedings of the 14th ACM Conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy. 2004.

For more electoral musings, see

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