Opinion

Return to paper ballots? Not so fast.

History shows that the US gave them up for good reason.

By

The paper ballot is making a comeback. Across America, election officials are ending their experiment with electronic touch-screen voting machines – a failure in the view of most experts – and replacing them with computerized tallying of paper ballots.

Some want to push the machines out entirely. To restore public confidence, they say, let's count the ballots by hand and allow citizens to observe and videotape the process.

But wait a minute. Today, fewer than 1 percent of America's votes are counted by hand. If hand counting is so great, why did we give it up?

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History gives a clear answer and a sharp warning: We gave up hand-counted paper ballots (HCPB) for good reason – and resuming their use might be a very bad idea.

Advocates portray the HCPB system as rooted in the origins of American democracy, but it didn't emerge until about a century later.

Before HCPB, Americans voted according to a party-ticket system. That meant parties distributed ballots at the polls and voters handed their ballots to election judges in public. This led to a host of election abuses, including vote buying, voter intimidation, and deception.

HCPB, which arose in Australia during the 1850s, was designed in part to prevent those abuses. It featured state-printed ballots and compulsory private voting It made its American debut in an 1889 Massachusetts state election. But some felt that this "Australian" system would introduce serious new problems.

One of the skeptics was a New York inventor named Jacob Myers. Just one day after the Massachusetts election, Myers unveiled the great-granddaddy of the mechanical-lever voting machine. He designed his machine to retain the merits of the Australian system while, at the same time, remedying its defects.

America thus had two ballot systems competing to fix the problems of the party-ticket system: the Australian, which is the HCPB system, and the "American," which employs the voting machine – and, at least initially, kept paper out of the picture entirely.

Why did Myers's American method end up trumping the Australian alternative?

Put simply, the Australian system's defects were too severe.

Myers, who had traveled abroad to study the Australian system up close, found that there were unacceptably high numbers of voided ballots due to voter mistakes (voting for too many candidates, making an erasure, or making an extraneous mark on the ballot). In any close election conducted with Australian ballots, the number of invalidated ballots would probably exceed the margin of victory, calling the election's validity into question.

After all, in the US, election officials are often openly partisan. The 2000 recount battle in Florida made that all too apparent. Did partisanship creep into their decisions about a given ballot's validity? Or if they didn't like the vote it contained, would they spoil it? Election officials have pulled off such tricks right under the noses of election observers, time and again.

American history is filled with examples of close elections that were followed by expensive, time-consuming recounts, focusing especially on the invalidated ballots. Sometimes contests dragged on so long that the term of office had expired before the appellate court had its say.

By taking paper out of the voting process, mechanical voting machines make it impossible for anyone to invalidate a ballot. A complex interlocking system – a technological achievement – prevents overvoting, in which a voter casts votes for more candidates than the law permits. Above all, the voting machine's virtue was precisely that it left nothing for partisan election officials to haggle over.

Americans did not adopt voting machines because they were "bamboozled" by corrupt election officials and voting-machine vendors, as one HCPB advocate claims. They chose the machines – and retained them – because they had lost confidence in the Australian ballot system. To be sure, the HCPB system can work well, as it does in Canada, Switzerland, and some areas in the US, provided that elections are administered by professional, nonpartisan officials, but in the 1890s, the movement to professionalize and depoliticize election systems was still in its infancy.

Returning to HCPB might work well in areas with lots of oversight, but in contrast to other stable democracies, this movement has made little progress in the US. Throughout most of the country, today's election system has more in common with that of the 1890s: It's inadequately supervised, insufficiently professionalized, and all too often staffed with openly partisan officials.

Under these circumstances, what voting machine backers believed a century ago still holds true: It just isn't wise to let people count ballots.

Bryan Pfaffenberger is a professor at the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science. He is working on a book about the history of mechanical voting machines.

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