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Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has recently introduced a bill that would require, and fund, the states to use paper ballots to try to ensure that every vote counts.  Richard Wagner considers the benefits.

Rep. Gabbard’s proposed “Securing America’s Elections Act” seeks to end the inconsistencies and controversies we saw with the voting machines in certain Midwestern states during the 2016 elections, and many times before.  

As a native Floridian who lived and voted in Florida during the 2000 elections, I distinctly remember that international embarrassment.  Every county in Florida was free to choose its own ballot style. Some chose machines that punched holes into the spot for the candidate, and faulty machines resulted in some ballots being “dimpled” rather than punched, and thus, not counting.  

Some counties had the confusing “butterfly ballot” where the candidates’ names were arranged on both sides of the ballot, with a row of buttons in the middle.  It was too easy to confuse the second button for “Al Gore”, when it actually went to “Pat Buchanan”, certainly costing Al Gore over 3,000 votes in Palm County.

Following that fiasco, Florida adopted simple, paper ballots across the state.  The names are in a single row, and you use a pen to bubble in your choice. Following the results, the ballots become public record, to doubly ensure the integrity of the election.  Theoretically, anyone in Florida could do their own manual recount, if they wanted to put the time into it. As long as Florida has stuck to this, there have been no further cases of widespread loss or miscounts of votes.

2016 and the “Rust Belt”

Trump, as we all know, won a surprising victory by winning over several “rust belt” states that traditionally go to Democrats in Presidential races.  The Big Three – Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan – turned red for Trump. All of them were won for Trump by less than 1%, and none of them actually voted for Trump by the majority (50% or more).  As all three of these states use voting machines that are difficult to verify, some speculate that the machines may have been hacked but no evidence was found to date.

While it is unlikely that hacking or faulty machines made enough of an impact to swing the election to Trump, this is a problem nonetheless.  I doubt 2016 is the last close election we’ll see. And that should be reason enough to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the integrity of our elections.

Paper Ballots Aren’t All That Is Needed

Paper ballots do make it far more difficult.  However, there is still the possibility of stuffing ballot boxes, hijacking ballot boxes on their way to be counted, as well as actual fraud where they are being counted.  We must consider all three of these risks if we adopt paper ballots.

Box stuffing is rarely a problem in this day and age, in America at least.  There are several poll workers at each place, and they all hold each other accountable.  Having voted several times with paper ballots following 2000, I’ve been through the process of receiving one ballot from a poll worker, with several others watching.  There are always security officers present. I cannot leave with that ballot. I can only go to one of the cubicles and fill it out. I’d have to break a window to get out of there with that ballot.  On the way out, I approach the place to enter my ballot. I do so face down for the sake of protecting the secrecy of my vote, but I have only one and there is a poll worker watching, and instructing if necessary, as I place my ballot into a machine that is designed to take one ballot at a time.  As long as we don’t cut any corners, we can ensure that there is no ballot box stuffing.

The hijacking of a ballot box is a more likely concern. Clearly, there needs to be the same kind of security for ballot boxes en route as there would be for a bank transferring cold, hard cash.  Even so, if someone were to actually hijack a ballot box, it would clearly end up all over the news, and investigations would follow. It would be exceedingly difficult to actually get away with this.

Lastly, there is the counting place.  Clearly, the vote counters need to be multi-partisan.  There should be Republicans, Democrats, Independents, maybe of third parties, etc. so that they can keep each other accountable.  And the ballots need to be electronically scanned to become public record, as we have, for the most part, in Florida.

The Public Record is very important

Florida did get sloppy recently, however. Debbie Wasserman Schultz officially won the Democratic Primary in 2016 against Tim Canova.  However, Canova was suspicious of the results and requested the public record of the ballots.

In an interview with Jimmy Dore, Canova stated that he made a public record request for the ballots, but they had already been destroyed.  Federal and Florida law required that paper ballots be kept for 22 months, yet they were destroyed within 12 months.  There were electronic copies, however. Canova expressed concern that these electronic copies could have been fraudulent, but nonetheless, followed through with a recount.  According to Canova, there were dozens of votes more in each precinct for him than the official counts showed.

Why Congress Should Pass Tulsi Gabbard’s Bill

Among western democracies, the United States ranks dead last for election integrity, according to the Election Integrity Project.  In most western democracies, a close election within less than a percentage point would automatically require a recount.  Pulling a lever for a candidate and hoping that the machine actually picks said candidate is unheard of. But that’s America.  Hardly an election goes by where we don’t hear rumors of machines “flipping votes”.

With recounts showing anywhere from dozens to hundreds of miscounted votes, we can certainly conclude that not every vote is counting in our current system.  It’s also worth noting that in Florida where we do now use paper ballots, the miscount (mentioned above) was dozens instead of hundreds, and this was only because not all the rules were followed as explained above.  If we truly believe in the principle – one person, one vote – then the expense and effort of paper ballots is well worth it.

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Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Florida State College at Jacksonville. He conducts independent study on the American conservative movement and foreign policy. When he is...