Paper Trail



by John Tyler Connoley


October 13, 2004



I love technology. I was one of the first people I know to own a PDA -- those little handheld computers that keep your addresses, calendar, and checkbook. I also never bank at a teller or write a paper check, preferring the convenience of ATMs and online banking. So, the first time I voted at my new precinct (for the primaries this fall), I was delighted by the electronic voting machine. My precinct doesn't have touchscreen voting yet, but we have the next coolest thing.


When you walk into one of our voting booths, there's a large ballot standing in front of you. To vote, you push the names of the candidates you want, and lights turn on behind each chosen name. As you move through the different choices, your ballot lights up like a Star Trek computer console. The best part is how easy it is to glance over the ballot and see exactly who you voted for -- all your candidates glow.


By the time I was finished lighting my candidates, I was thoroughly enjoying my electronic voting experience. I looked over the lights and made sure they were all correct, before I pressed VOTE. The lights went out, and I waited for something to happen. Apparently, my votes were cast, and the machine reset itself for the next person. I say apparently, because I have no way of knowing for sure. I expected a whirring, or a printout, or something. But I just got a blank ballot. It was a bit of a letdown after the fun of lighting up candidate names. It was also unsettling.


It bothered me not to have a paper receipt, because even though I'm a technophile, I'm also a realist. I know computers crash, information gets garbled, data gets lost, and in those situations it's good to have a paper backup. For example, I don't have a paper address book anymore, but I occasionally print out all my addresses and archive them -- just in case.


A paper receipt also lets you make sure you voted like you thought you did. I use ATMs regularly, but I always ask for a paper receipt. Not only do I want a paper backup for my electronic checkbook (I keep all those receipts in a shoe box and only throw them away every year or two), but I also want a paper backup in case the ATM somehow messes up the transaction. I want to be able to go to the bank with a paper showing what I did.


I like paper because it's more reliable than magnetic hard drives. You have to burn paper to get rid of it. Even shredding doesn't destroy it -- as the executives at Enron learned when the Feds pieced together their shredded documents. On the other hand, hard drives are fairly easy to damage, as anyone who's dropped her laptop on a tile floor knows. Written documents can also be accessed for a longer period of time. 2,000 years later, we can still read the Dead Sea Scrolls, but I have electronic documents from 1992 that I can no longer open. So, when I'm dealing with information that I need to keep for a long period of time, or that I absolutely don't want to lose, I make a reliable paper backup.


To me, every vote falls into this category of information that should be kept for a long period of time and that shouldn't be lost. That means every vote should have a paper trail. Like an ATM, every electronic voting machine should have a small printer that spits out a receipt the voter can check and then deposit in a lock box. That way, if anything happens, there's a paper backup we can rely on.


I really do love the possibilities of electronic voting. I like that electronic ballots don't let you vote for two candidates for the same position. I like the way touchscreen voting machines prompt people several times before they cast a blank ballot. I'm thrilled at the potential of electronic voting machines allowing the blind to vote in private for the first time in our nation's history. I'm also not one of those people who fears electronic voting because it might be sabotaged or commandeered -- if the Republicans or Democrats are determined to steal an election, paper ballots won't stop them.


That said, if a voting machine or an election server goes down, we need a reliable way of retrieving people's votes. It's also troubling to think that if an election is decided on the basis of a handful of votes, a recount would mean simply pressing the same button that was pressed to count the votes the first time. Or, what if the results of an election seem inconceivable (as happened when the anti-Semitic Pat Buchanan took more votes in a predominately Jewish county than in any other county in Florida)? In that case, it's important to be able to confirm the computer tally somehow. As a technophile, I'm all for electronic voting -- as long as there's a paper trail.




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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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