Why is a Voter-Verified Paper Ballot Important?

op-scanballot.jpgPennsylvania is a key swing state that could decide the course of our nation and its history, and we are one of the states at greatest risk for problems with our voting systems and our elections.

The right of each person to vote, and to have that vote counted accurately, is the absolute core of our Democracy. Our vote is our voice in our government and way of life. When our forefathers signed the Declaration of Independence and formed the U.S. Constitution, they recognized that by voting we as citizens give our government its power.

This right to vote is sacred, purchased and retained through the blood of many patriots over the last two hundred and thirty years. People have laid down their lives for our right to vote, both soldiers on the battlefield and ordinary citizens in places like the Pettus Bridge at Selma, Alabama.

In a time when we claim to be delivering democracy around the globe we must make certain that we uphold the most democratic values here at home. But sadly, recent elections have shown that our American right to vote may be in danger. Miscounts, lost votes, courts deciding elections rather than voters, and declining voter participation are all signs that the American electoral system is in deep trouble.

In 2002 Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. This federal legislation, while intending to improve our elections, mandated sweeping changes in how we vote; basically dangling a pot of money in front of every state and county in the nation to get them to obtain shiny new voting systems by 2006. 

The intention of HAVA may have been good, but some of the electronic voting systems sold under this law were as worthless as the proverbial 19th-century snake oil. At least two of the voting systems purchased by Pennsylvania counties had serious problems and were later decertified for use in our state, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Worse yet, tens of thousands of precious Pennsylvania votes were cast but never accounted for on these machines! 

The voting systems purchased with HAVA funds relied on electronic, computerized tallies. Computers are wonderful for many things, but vote counting is not really one of them. Nationwide, there have been thousands of incidents of electronic voting machine failure and problems. Some of these problems have resulted in whole elections having to be re-voted, and some have probably changed election outcomes. 

Unfortunately we will never be able to know for sure. Once a vote is lost or altered in the electronic memory of a computer, the truth about that election is gone forever. There is no meaningful way to audit votes or recreate what happened inside the software running these machines, even if that software has been corrupted or is malfunctioning. Any so-called 'recount' will always be simply a re-print of whatever the software says is correct. There is just no way to know for sure. Ever.

Fortunately people are starting to recognize that this is a problem. Outside of Pennsylvania, over 70% of the United States has dropped paperless electronic voting and moved to more modern systems using Voter Verified Paper Ballots.

A Voter Verified Paper Ballot is basically a paper copy of the voter's choices, which he or she has marked and approved before casting their final vote. Each voter deposits his or her ballot into a scanning machine, which counts it, and then that ballot goes into a locked ballot box, where it is available for auditing or recount. 

Every election must then be audited by hand-counting the voter-verified paper ballots in a small but significant percentage of precincts chosen at random, or in some cases by a complete hand count of all ballots. The hand-counted totals will be compared to the machine counts, to be certain that the scanners are operating without error. In the event the audit or recount shows a discrepancy between the electronic tally and the paper, the hand counted voter-verified paper ballot must become the official record.

One simple little piece of paper for each voter thus becomes a giant, protecting our vote. 

Businesses audit their inventory and finances. Individuals audit their finances and property. The government audits many things. So does it not make sense for our state and to invest this small effort into auditing our sacred votes?

Yet here we are in 2016, and most of Pennsylvania's voting machines still won't let us meaningfully audit our elections. Voters still can't verify that votes are being recorded as cast. We still can't be certain that Pennsylvania's elections are being counted accurately. For over 85% of Pennsylvania's voters, in 54 counties, there is still no voter-verified paper ballot. 

In the meantime, Pennsylvania's unverifiable electronic voting machines are now all at least 10 years old or older. They are very old computers that are nearing the end of their useful life and showing signs of their age. Many areas of Pennsylvania have been reporting votes jumping from one candidate to another on touchscreen voting machines, machines that won't start up on election day, not enough emergency ballots, and other problems. In recent elections, more incidents were reported to the Election Incident Reporting Service from Pennsylvania than any other state except Florida.

It is clear that Pennsylvania's touchscreen and pushbutton electronic voting machines need to be replaced soon. Very soon. The state and counties are strapped for money and it is very likely that vendors and others will be proposing quick fixes and shortcuts that are not be truly secure and accurate methods of counting our votes. And they are hoping that you and I, as citizens, won't notice.

But it is up to us, as citizens, to stand up for our right to vote. We must pay attention. We must get involved. We must demand that the next round of voting machines purchased with our taxpayer dollars is based on solid, secure, modern Voter-Verified Paper Ballots -- and that every election is accurately and meaningfully audited.

Citizens can make a difference. Welcome to VotePA, a statewide nonpartisan group of citizens fighting for all voting rights and election integrity in Pennsylvania.