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Are We Ready to Join the Rest of the World with Trustworthy and Transparent Elections Yet?

Updated on December 5, 2016
ralphlopez profile image

Ralph Lopez majored in Economics and Political Science at Yale University. He has published in the Boston Globe and the Baltimore Sun.

Election night in Ireland.
Election night in Ireland.

A worrisome scenario unfolds as recount efforts proceed in some states relative to the 2016 presidential election. Perhaps worse than one side or the other's hopes being dashed, are recounts which settle nothing. This still leaves the outcome of an election fraught with anger and frustration, regardless of who is declared the winner. Clinton supporters are unlikely to be completely satisfied that Trump's victory was rightly earned, and Trump supporters are unlikely to believe that Hillary didn't try to cheat, but couldn't do it enough to win.

The accusations of Republicans and now Democrats that elections may be rigged flies in the face of prior outrage in the media over anyone questioning election results. Media pundits warned that such talk is "dangerous." Confidence in our system of voting is at an all-time low. This is indeed a danger zone for a republic. When the ballot box ceases to be the outlet by which all sides agree to settle their differences, they might seek to settle them in other ways.

Meanwhile, in most other advanced Western nations, political parties and candidates contend just as fiercely and bitterly for power, but election results are rarely in dispute.

Are Europeans and others just naturally less litigious, more prone to simply trusting their elections officials? Hardly. What differs is that their voting systems inspire confidence and discourage challenges of results.

In the U.S. in recent years, almost every presidential election, and many presidential primaries, are marred by doubts over their fairness and honesty. 2004 saw a startling reversal in the fortunes of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry on election night, when what seemed to be an insurmountable lead in the swing state of Ohio suddenly melted. This prompted lawsuits charging that the Ohio vote was manipulated. Prior to a critical court date for one of these lawsuits, a Republican IT guru who was to testify on the hacking of the Ohio vote was killed in a small plane crash.

In 2012 mathematicians discovered evidence that the results of the Republican presidential primaries had been rigged against Ron Paul, who was filling football stadiums with young college-age voters much as Bernie Sanders did this year. Paul nevertheless lost to Mitt Romney, who at times could barely fill a high school gym.

And after this year's Democratic primaries, election experts and statisticians argued that there was strong evidence that Bernie Sanders was denied the nomination "as a consequence of specific irregularities and instances of fraud."

What are Germany, Canada, France, Ireland, Italy, Denmark, Finland, and 53 other countries doing differently than we here in the U.S.? Why do legal battles over recounts never dominate the headlines after elections in these countries?

For one thing, they all use paper ballots, counted by hand, not by optical scan machine like roughly 70% of the U.S. uses. These are the ubiquitous boxes which suck in your ballot after you fill in the circles for your selections. In most of the U.S. no one ever looks at paper ballots, unless a hand recount is ordered by the courts. As Jill Stein is finding, this is hard to do. In Wisconsin, Stein won only a state-wide machine count of the ballots which may have been counted incorrectly by machines in the first place.

Almost every state in the U.S. makes recounts difficult to obtain. Even Stein, who raised $6 million to pay for the recounts, could not get a state-wide hand recount in Wisconsin. And in most of Pennsylvania, another state targeted by Stein, there is nothing to recount. There are no paper ballots, only electronic touch screen machines with no paper record. "Recounting" votes in Pennsylvania is like recounting air.

Paper ballots, counted by hand, in itself is not enough to assure elections which are accepted as valid by warring sides. There is one more critical element.

Let's face it, paper ballots have been around a long time, and there has been plenty of cheating using paper ballots. President Lyndon B. Johnson's early campaigns became famous for ballot boxes stuffed in backrooms with votes from illegal Mexicans, practicing the art with a deftness which would make Mayor Daley's Chicago machine proud.

That is why the most important element in a trusted voting system is the idea that all aspects of an election should be carried out in the most open and visible way possible. In a word: transparency.

The most advanced voting systems, meaning those which result in widely accepted results, start counting the ballots by hand as soon as the polls close, at the precinct, in front of the public. Observers from each party watch the counting up close, as do selected citizen observers. The proceedings can be filmed with surveillance cameras and may be broadcast by CCTV into adjoining rooms for spillover crowds.

In the election integrity business, one firm principle is that the less time the ballots are out of the public's sight, the less opportunity there is for hocus-pocus. Mail-in and early-voting provisions should be restricted to "good cause." Mail-in and early-voting present a prime opportunity for mischief as ballots languish out of the public eye.

A frequent argument heard against using such a system as the standard in all elections, is that this would not be feasible in large cities with lots of precincts. But this argument is entirely specious. All precincts in the U.S. are roughly the same size, about a thousand voters on average, with roughly the same number of elections staff per precinct. Using volunteers in the count would make the work go even faster.

It takes a little longer than simply running a tape to see what the machine says, but usually a staff can be done by morning. The goal of such systems is to do it right the first time, and settle the thing, so no one has to keep going to court over and over.

Those who say the system would take too long should remember that the November 2016 presidential election is still being disputed. And it is now December.

When the public sees that all sides are watching the count, literally, seeing that the precinct box was opened and shown to be empty at the start of the day, when it sees the ballots have been in front of them from the time the polls closed, there is little room for saying the vote was hacked or that the ballot boxes were stuffed.

The concept of paper ballots, hand-counted, in public, is an idea whose time has finally come in America. Citizens should push their state legislatures to get to work, so a new nationwide "gold standard" can be in place for the congressional elections in 2018. These are arguably as important as presidential elections, if not more. The legislative branch of our government is where the greatest power resides. The Founders deliberately gave only Congress the power of the purse, the power to originate laws, and the power to declare war.

Paper ballots, hand-counted, in public, on the night of the election. If America is to move away from a quasi-feudal system of modern-day election warlords each fighting to steal more votes than the next one, this is what our future voting must look like. There is no better time to start than now.


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    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 

      2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      The one time I worked at an election poll we had to print out the results from the voting machine before it was taken to election HQ and post them on the front window where anyone interested in the results could see them. Anyone who wanted to count the votes for themselves could easily have done it. This practice is standard in the state of Georgia.

      At the end of that 13-hour day if I'd had to hand count the votes, I would have been too cross-eyed to concentrate. If we do this, we need volunteers who haven't worked the polls all day to do the counting.

    • lovemychris profile image

      Leslie McCowen 

      2 years ago from Cape Cod, USA

      excellent idea. i, for one, will always believe trump's win was fixed.

      former minnesota governor said the same as you.

      sometimes "progress" is actually not in the best interest. machines are easily tweaked.

      your idea here is the one way to make it right.

      thumbs up!


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