We think of the secret ballot as being fundamental to our rights, and indeed to our democratic system, and in many ways that belief is correct. Or it certainly would be correct, if those secret ballots were cast in a verifiable, accurately- tabulating voting system.
But the secret ballot became a sacred aspect of elections, in the days when ballots were cast in boxes, using paper. There was little risk run by those who cherished the secrecy of their choices in such a system, because the ballots could always be recounted. They were physical artefacts. They either existed or they did not.
People could steal elections in this “analog” technology of paper and locked ballot boxes, of course, by destroying or hiding votes, or by bribing voters, a la Tammany Hall, or by other forms of wrongdoing, so security and chain of custody, as well as anti-corruption scrutiny, were always needed in guaranteeing accurate election counts. But there was no reason, with analog physical processing of votes, to query the tradition of the secret ballot.
Before the digital scanning of votes, you could not hack a wooden ballot box; and you could not set an algorithm to misread a pile of paper ballots. So, at the end of the day, one way or another, you were counting physical documents.
Those days are gone, obviously, and in many districts there are digital systems reading ballots. Both the Left and the Right have accused the other team of nefarious electronic chicanery.
And as a result, the sacred secret ballot tradition, with no other option permitted to voters for managing their votes, makes digitally-read elections horribly easy to steal. As Harper’s correctly warned a decade ago, “Old-school election fraud was limited in scope, but new electronic voting systems allow insiders to rig elections on a national scale.” [https://www.electiondefense.org/how-to-rig-an-election]
The Brennan Center for Justice points out that half of America is now voting on electronic machines that are near the end of their usable lives, and that thus are vulnerable to breaking down from missing or obsolete parts, or to viruses. The authors of the Brennan Center study also note that many districts use electronic machines that do not give a paper document for each vote [a “VVPAT”]. Their description of the issue is partisan, and it seems odd to malign voters for “viral videos” and “conspiracy theories” about touch screens flipping votes when they are in fact…flipping votes, but the core of the crisis is accurately described in the following paragraphs. Bottom line: electronic ( or “direct recording electronic” or “DRE”) machines suck and can be messed with eight million ways, and if they don’t also give you a “VVPAT,” or “voter-verified paper audit trail” — (these election audit experts love citizen-unfriendly jargon) they can cause havoc:
“Of particular concern are jurisdictions that still use DRE voting machines. These machines, which may or may not produce a VVPAT, generally require a voter to use a touch-screen monitor to vote. In recent years, a number of these models have “flipped” votes, with the touch screen incorrectly registering voters’ choices due to calibration errors associated with aging hardware. That, in turn, has led to viral videos and conspiracy theories of machines “stealing votes.”
While the number of jurisdictions using DREs has fallen dramatically in recent years, nearly 26 million registered voters in 16 states live in jurisdictions that still use DREs for some or all voters as of February 2022. And of those, more than 13 million registered voters live in six states (Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Texas) that use DREs without VVPAT as their principal polling place equipment for some or all voters.[ footnote1_tstxxlf1]
Four of these states have started to address their DRE vulnerability. Louisiana passed a bill last year requiring new voting systems to “produce an auditable voter-verified paper record.” The state is in the process of selecting new voting machines. A new Texas law requires the state to phase out DREs by September 1, 2026, although curbside voters may still vote on DREs without VVPAT. Indiana passed a bill in January requiring jurisdictions with DREs to add VVPAT printers by 2024. New Jersey has required VVPAT since 2009. Despite that deadline, many counties continue to use paperless systems, purportedly because of a lack of funding to replace them.
New voting machines that produce a paper ballot for each vote cast make it possible for election officials to conduct post-election audits. Approximately half of all states and the District of Columbia conduct post-election audits, which require a review of paper ballots to check the accuracy of the votes cast. With partisan actors fueled by the Big Lie conducting partisan reviews that undermine confidence in our elections, it is becoming increasingly important for qualified election officials to conduct legitimate audits of their own […]” [https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-machines-risk-2022#footnote1_tstxxlf]
You don’t have to believe that it is “partisan” to demand a verified paper trail for every election, to want a better assurance that your vote will be properly counted, than — the nothing at all you get when think that you have made your choice, and when you walk away from a “DRE” without a “VVPAT”.
It is hardly nonsensical for the public’s “confidence in our elections” to be undermined by the current state of play, a patchwork of digital machines ranging from touchscreen to scanners and other technologies, all of which the average voter thoroughly and correctly understands to be rackety and unverifiable.
People are not stupid; and they live with technology every single day. They know full well that it is not flawless. The ordinary hassles they experience when their PC laptop or HP printer or Fitbit or Android malfunctions in weird ways, or their emails don’t get though or their credit card shows a duplicate charge for a single payment, leads them to have the common sense to question how something as complex and important and delicate as the thousands of tabulations of millions of data points that make up a national election, or even a state-wide election, can possibly be handled adequately, electronically.
I remember vividly the longtime practice in my local polling place in the West Village, in a public school cafeteria. There was the uplifting ritual of filling in the little ovals, carefully, one by one on a thick paper ballot; and then the voter would be bidden to the voting booths by the bustling, elderly lady volunteers (with somehow always that one handsome elderly gentleman among them, looking pleased). These lovely, officious ladies, nicely dressed for this important occasion, always seem to emerge mysteriously, like Angels of Democracy, to perform this solemn duty.
You would enter a fabulously retro private booth with a hip-length curtain around it, and pull the 1950s-era-seeming thick metal arm solidly in an arc from left to right. The metal tooth locked into its groove at the end of the gesture with a satisfying ca-chunk, physically to register your physical vote. I always left the little schoolhouse at peace; knowing that it was there, my very own vote, executed in my own hand, to be reviewed alongside the physical votes of other citizens, if there were any question about the outcome.
And then one day — I went in and saw a banal row of digital machines, with little screens, like ATM machines, in a row, right in the middle of the room, under glaring fluorescent lights (the cool retro booths, now vanished, had been placed along the perimeters of the cafeteria, facing the walls, so each citizen could have his or her hallowed space).
The new machines had flimsy, gestural barriers “for privacy” on either side of the screen. Well, less like ATMs perhaps, and more like a row of digital urinals.
The elderly ladies, this time around, looked helpless, flustered and dejected, as they had nothing now to do. If there was something that went wrong, or a malfunction, and a citizen approached them — who could help? The issue would go up the chain of command to some harried official who surely was not a techie. The citizen would have to leave the once-sacred polling place with the same frustration one gets when one swipes a credit card at a vending machine and one’s Mars bar stays unmoving, right where it was before one had paid.
Everything now was that damn fragile.
I left the cafeteria, after I had vote, with nothing at all to show for it. There was nothing I could do to bring back my record of my vote, in the event of a contested outcome. It was an extraordinarily disempowering feeling.