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Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Glue

It emerged last week that the Austrian government has to postpone its October 2 Presidential Runoff Election because—wait for it—the glue on the envelopes that contain voters’ mail-in ballots is not holding.  The Austrian election became unglued.

Austria’s election is for their President—not a dogcatcher.  It is highly contentious with a well-known nationalist—think the Nazi Party–in line to win. It is difficult to say how widespread the glue and envelope problem is and whether it impacts mail in ballots in the US and other countries.  But even if Austria is unique, the situation makes the point that I and other Internet-voting advocates have been making for a long time.  Paper ballots are not a guarantee against election fraud.  On the contrary, some of the best known “alleged” rigged elections—LBJ’s 87 vote Senate primary victory in 1948 won because of the ballot stuffed Box 13; JFK’s Illinois success in November, 1960 credited to Mayor Richard Daley and the votes of the deceased that he controlled.

The activists who are against Internet voting are wrong when they assert the key to safe and secure elections is paper. The simple fact is using paper does not guarantee a verifiable election.  It opens many new opportunities for fraud as well as inaccurate counting and reporting. Paper ballots present many problems.

Paper companies and printers have a lucrative business from ballots because elections are occurring constantly.  States such as Virginia intentionally moved their gubernatorial elections to odd years to avoid having their outcomes highly dependent on national voting patterns.  They gave their contracted printers a cause to jump for joy with federal elections in even years and state elections in odd years. Millennials will increasingly be mystified by the paper ballot system of American elections.

The system of privacy sleeves and envelopes works, but it is costly and involves trusting the myriad of people who handle the ballots before they are counted. The counting itself is open to the public to witness, but that does not mean ballots were not lost or manipulated, intentionally or unintentionally, before the votes are tabulated.

Another major concern about staying with the status quo is that voting machines in the vast majority of localities are showing their age.  Voting machines and scanners are 10-15 years old. The technology is old and the software the machines use is outdated. Some states are encouraging Vote-by-Mail to save money and reduce the pressure on failing machines at polling places. Registrars are also finding it very difficult to find poll workers who will put in the grueling long days to oversee the polling places. Vote-by-Mail is convenient for many voters. They fill out the ballot and put it in the mail. Of course, some states require one to purchase a stamp to mail in a ballot, a form of a poll tax that our country outlawed many decades ago.

Few voters check to see if their ballots arrived and got counted. We have seen too many instances of Americans living abroad—including our active duty military—not having their mail-in ballots counted because they arrive too late or are somehow diverted.

A crooked candidate could theoretically bribe postal workers to keep an eye out for ballot envelopes from a certain voting jurisdiction known to vote for the other party.  The postal worker could then easily deposit such envelopes in a trash dumpster so they would never be counted.  Just because someone requests a ballot does not mean that person will vote, so there is no way for a registrar to be certain there was no hijacking of ballots.

States are the key to the future of Internet voting, an alternative which will be viewed more and more as attractive. The constitution gives them the responsibility to manage their elections. If their voting process leadership is not ready to jump quickly and completely to Internet voting, they at least should conduct pilots all the while expecting the Internet community to produce more research and upgraded technology.

We have all played the game rock, paper, scissors in which rock crushes scissors, paper covers rock, and scissors cut paper.  In the case of voting, it is not true that paper covers Internet voting.  And the sooner people realize that, the sooner we will avoid seeing our entire election process rocked.