Vote of Confidence: Who Paper Hurts the Most

Last week, we explored why the arguments for paper-based voting systems don’t stand up as well as they may seem.  As previously stated in this series, paper certainly resolves some of the most pressing issues with today’s outdated voting machines but a regression to exclusively paper ballots will do harm to the voting public our civic infrastructure is designed to serve.


Traditional polling places are an archetypal image in what we associate with our elections.  Long lines around the corner, happy voters wearing “I Voted” stickers on their lapel; the image is repeated virtually every election season.   This image, however, casts voters of different abilities out completely.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a study of 178 polling places spread across the United States during the 2016 elections.  According to the GAO, ⅔ of the polling places, both for early voting and during election day, had some sort of impediment for voters with disabilities.  That number was up from ½ of polling places during the 2008 study. According to the results of the study, published as part Pew’s “Stateline” series, impediments ranged from lack of wheelchair access to a polling place to special machines equipped with earphones and other modifications that weren’t even powered on the day of the election. As sobering as these figures are, things would get worse if there were to be a mass regression towards paper.  Traditional paper-based voting systems have little to no accommodations for the visually impaired or hard of hearing. Furthermore, the traditional locales where paper balloting often do not meet minimum requirements for accessibility as determined by the United States Access Board.

Military and Abroad:

It is a great irony, and saddening truth, that some of our military service members are some of the most disadvantaged citizens in terms of access to the democratic process. In 1986, Congress passed the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, allowing members of the Uniformed Services unrestricted access to absentee ballots to vote in their home districts while serving abroad. This bill raised much needed awareness around difficulties facing service members abroad, but it has also brought attention to just how dire the situation is.  The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) has conducted numerous studies about the efficacy and turnout for US Citizens voting from abroad. An FVAP study showed that only 4% of eligible voters abroad participated in the 2014 elections while another shows a consistent 22-24% gap in participation between UOCAVA and non-UOCAVA Active Duty Members of the Armed Forces. In identifying the primary reasons for the low international turnout, most respondents identified “issues with absentee voting” more than any other reason.  For a Uniformed Officer serving on a aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean, one can see how the process of requesting, marking, and sending back a paper ballot in time for an election would prove difficult. Mandating a system based exclusively on paper would further the already difficult process overseas voters have to undergo just to register and participate in our democracy.

Not only does paper represent a major regression in technology, it disenfranchises the voters who are most likely to be excluded, and, as a result, whose voices are least likely to be heard.  Mobile voting may not be a panacea, but it represents the best opportunity to improve turnout and independent participation amongst people with disabilities and members of our military. In this series, we have explored how blockchain mobile voting can have a profound impact on the way we vote.  To offer people with disabilities and member of the armed forces a a mobile option, while also adding enhanced verifiability and security that comes with a blockchain system, would prove revolutionary for the way those strata of American society participate in government.

Votem ran UOCAVA registration and ballot marking for Montana in the 2016 General Election. The response from was not only overwhelmingly positive, but gave us a glimpse of how difficult it is for people to exercise what is supposed to be a basic right.  

As stated last week, there is a desire amongst folks to move forward with our voting technology and adopt methods that will keep pace with the rest of the world.  It is imperative that those whose voices are not often heard are able to participate in our democratic process.

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