Monday, October 02, 2006

Paper or Electronic?

Last week the Washington Times ran an article in the local news section that began:

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson visited Maryland yesterday to support Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's bid for governor, but said he agrees with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s views on paper balloting's superiority to electronic voting.

"I believe that the best way is paper ballots, with optical scanners," Mr. Richardson, a Democrat, said during an event in Silver Spring. "We did that in New Mexico, and it should become nationwide."
The article, by Jon Ward, noted:
Mr. Ehrlich has threatened to call a special session of the General Assembly to discard the entire electronic voting system in favor of paper ballots.
I thought the article cried out for a response, so I wrote one. It appeared in today's letters to the editor column in the Times. (Somehow the editor got the section wrong in the reference to the original article.)
The governors of Maryland and New Mexico may belong to different political parties, but they agree that "the best way" to avoid problematic or fraudulent elections "is paper ballots" rather than electronic voting machines ("Democratic governor backs Ehrlich on balloting," Commentary, Wednesday).

Govs. Bill Richardson and Bob Ehrlich may have confidence in paper ballots but they may be sorely disappointed if they count on them to prevent fraud.

In order to disrupt an election or change its results when electronic voting machines are used, a potential perpetrator must have a sophisticated knowledge, not just of computer hardware and software in general, but of particular hardware and software, plus he must gain physical access to the machinery by overcoming simple and widely-practiced security procedures.

In order to disrupt an election or change its results when paper ballots are used, a potential perpetrator must have: a pen. Or a pencil. And nothing more.

Marking a second (or third) candidate in a "vote for one" race invalidates a ballot for that race, with nobody receiving a vote.

Stray marks made on an optical-scan ballot render that ballot unreadable by a machine, and therefore it must be set aside for hand-counting, when it becomes subject to human error.

All it takes is a pen or pencil to make these marks on paper ballots to change the results of an election.

Paper ballots can also be torn, folded, spindled and mutilated, making them unreadable by either machine or human eyes.

In his 2004 book, "Stealing Elections," Wall Street Journal editorial writer John Fund documents dozens of cases of electoral fraud involving paper (either voter registration forms or paper ballots) over the past two decades. At the same time, he notes in regard to electronic voting machines, that "in the twenty-plus years that these machines have been used, in many counties all across the country, there has never been a verified case of tampering."

There are many other problems involving paper ballots, but one thing is clear: They will not stop perceived or actual election fraud.
In the print edition, my letter was placed at the head of the letters column, just below the editorial cartoon by Bill Garner. Sadly, though -- despite the prominent placement -- I don't think this will put an end to the debate.

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