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Why Paper Ballots Are Not Good Enough

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Why Paper Ballots Are Not Good Enough
By Michael Richardson

There is currently a "Dear American Patriot" letter circulating on the internet urging amendments to H.R. 550, a pending bill before Congress to revamp voting machines.

To make a long story short, the proposed improvements to H.R. 550 do address some of the worst features of the electronic voting machines and call upon Congress to adopt paper ballots as the official ballots of record. For many in the "election integrity" movement a mandate for paper ballots will address the "undervote" mess in Sarasota, Florida, where the electronic machines did not record 18,000 votes.

However, paper ballots only solve half of the problem with electronic voting machines.

Counting the ballots is the second half, but the "patriots" are not asking for mandatory hand counts of the paper ballots. Optical scanner voting machines will still be used to count the votes. The "election integrity" folks want audits of selected precincts to guarantee honest elections.

How quickly we forget. On May 26, 2005, in Leon County, Florida, the group BlackBoxVoting arranged for Finnish computer programmer Harri Hursti to test an optical scanner vote counting machine for election officials. Hursti, using a supposedly clean memory chip, hacked a scanner before the incredulous eyes of election officials.

Self-deleting malicious software code can be used to change vote outcomes on any model or type of electronic voting machine, without detection. The malicious code can be inserted into the machine at the factory, in the warehouse, while being transported, in the election office, at the polling place, or anywhere that someone with the know-how and opportunity can strike.

Once a memory chip is infected with malicious code the virus can be introduced by honest election officials unaware that they are contaminating the machine, even while they are testing it for accuracy!

Even the optical scanner advocates recognize the vulnerability, which is why they urge audits. But what good is an audit? Only the ballots actually audited are to be trusted. Some say 1% is good enough. Others want 2%. Some say 10%. But guess what? The 18,000 "undervotes" in Sarasota constituted 12.9% of the votes cast and still a judge upheld the machine count arguing there was only speculation as to the discrepancy.

The law of recounts is uneven. In some jurisdictions, there is no provision for recounts. Often they are expensive. If a 12.9% variance cannot trigger a more complete investigation by authorities, what of "minor" discrepancies discovered in an audit?

The only audit that really counts is a 100% audit. Count all the ballots. Count them in the open, and count them by hand.

Some argue that the halfway measure now being urged by the "patriots" for paper ballots is a good start to fixing the problem. The difficulty with that view is political reality. Once the Congress passes a bill the problem is "fixed" and the law of inertia takes over, even if the "fix" does not really repair the problem. Remember the Help America Vote Act? That resulted in electronic voting machines being crammed down our throats. Literally, reluctant state and local election officials bought into the machines...machines that are untrustworthy, machines that can be rigged without detection.

Paper ballots alone are not enough. America needs a secure hand-counted paper ballot system to insure real election integrity.

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Michael Richardson is a freelance writer living in Belize. Richardson writes about Taiwan foreign policy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Black Panther Party. Richardson was Ralph Nader's ballot access manager during the 2004 and (more...)

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