Could we actually get a ballot count in 2020 that would be fair and reliable?
There are now computerized voting machines producing digital ballot images that could help make that possible. But some election officials don't want to make the best use of them ... for reasons that aren't often clear.
The stakes could not be higher. And confirming the use of reliable, verifiable methods of casting and counting ballots in 2020 and beyond will require a huge grassroots effort.
A dozen years ago (in the wake of the Florida 2000 fiasco that put George W. Bush in the White House), paperless touch-screen "black box" voting machines spread throughout the US. Ronnie Dugger, the legendary editor of the Texas Observer, told me at an Ohio hearing that these machines "were perfectly designed to steal elections."
Financed by the 2002 Help America Vote Act, these "push and pray" electronic touchscreen Direct Recorded Entry (DRE) devices were easily hacked and impossible to monitor.
They clearly swung many an election (including Ohio 2004 and Michigan 2016) where local officials could make the outcomes be whatever they wanted. (A computer professor recently hacked one of those machines to play the University of Michigan fight song.)
Many are still in use, and could impact the 2020 vote count. But DREs are gratefully going extinct. Many have been replaced by paper-ballot-based systems.
Many election protection activists strongly question anything other than hand-cast and hand-counted paper ballots, and for good reason. This new generation of machines may solve some key problems by using a mix of paper ballots and more transparent, independent systems to do vote counts. Needless to say, they will be VERY carefully scrutinized going forward.
Here's how they work:
- The voter chooses a language and receives a ballot printed on the spot. This feature helps counties like Los Angeles, whose 4.3 million registered voters can legally vote in any one of more than a dozen languages. Providing a comprehensive supply of preprinted ballots is a virtual impossibility; the machines help make the situation manageable.
- The voter marks the ballot with a pen or special pencil.
- Some precincts are deploying touchscreen devices to mark the ballots. Some specially challenged voters need them. But many critics say they cost too much and can be hacked. (The blogosphere has filled with acrimony over whether these Ballot Marking Devices can be fairly monitored ... or should be banned altogether.)
- However it's marked, the voter then inserts the ballot back into the machine. (Many ballots will also be coming in by mail, and will be inserted by poll workers to produce a ballot image, with the mailed-in ballots being stored along with those cast in person at the voting place.)
- A digital image of the ballot is then stored in memory, to be tallied for the official vote count in the LA system.
- The paper ballot itself then flows through to a bin where it remains available for a manual recount should the electronic image tallies be challenged.
Many election protection activists are closely watching the LA system, which is different from other ballot marking devices. If the computer code is open to public scrutiny, hacking the digital images becomes pretty tough. Mal-programming can happen, but it isn't easy and could be detected, both by inspection of the source coding and a re-check against the original ballots. (On the other hand, the expense of the BMDs as opposed to simple pen/pencils will remain an issue.)
If they're reliably preserved (as required by federal law) the ballot images can be quickly inspected in a close and/or disputed election.
The paper ballots themselves provide an obvious backup for reliable recounting. But the chain of custody must be carefully protected for the required 22 months (i.e., nobody unauthorized can be allowed to get their hands on them, as happened in Ohio 2004 and elsewhere).
These digital ballot image machines are now widely available.
States and counties covering as much as 85% of the nation's voters are expected to use paper ballot-based systems in 2020. The systems are not uniform; there's a wide variety in play.
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