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Democracy's Gold Standard

Hand-Marked, Hand-Counted Paper Ballots, Publicly Tabulated at Every Polling Place in America

by Brad Friedman

Last March, the country's highest court found secret, computerized vote counting unconstitutional. The country was Germany. The Constitution that computerized counting violated was the one the U.S. wrote and insisted Germans ratify under the terms of surrender following WWII.

Paul Lehto, a U.S. election attorney and constitutionalist, summarized the German court's landmark finding:

• The Constitution requires a "publicly observed count."

• No "specialized technical knowledge" can be required of observers.

Computerized voting-counting meets neither of these requirements, so machines will not be used in the 2009 elections.

Lehto wondered why observable democracy is an inviolable right for "conquered Nazis Germans", but not, apparently, for United States citizens.

Since the 2000 Florida debacle, the notion of publicly overseen paper ballot tabulation has been widely and unfairly discredited. Critics argue paper ballots are easily manipulated; voters are sloppy, so "voter intent" may not be clear; and human counters aren't as reliable as computers, which surely provide the best way to accurately count votes. Technology, after all, is progress – so the argument goes.

But technology does not always offer the most progressive solution to a problem, certainly not when citizen oversight and, thus, the constitutional right of self-governance, is scrapped in the bargain.

While hand-counting is routinely discredited, notice the odd paradox that, in the closest elections, a public hand-count of paper ballots (where they exist) is used to determine who actually won.

According to this oxymoronic logic, hand-counting is no good unless you really want to know the winner.

Publicly hand-counting ballots determined the winner of Minnesota's recent U.S. Senate race.  A hand-count settled Washington State's 2004 Gubernatorial contest. And in the 2006 Republican Primary in Pottawatomie County, Iowa, a hand-count found that optical scanners had tallied seven races incorrectly. Unfortunately, publicly observable counting is the exception rather than the rule in this country, and is generally used only in the closest elections or when results are so obviously twisted officials are left with no other choice.

"Hand-counting paper ballots is recognized as the gold standard in states across the country," Ellen Theisen of election watchdog VotersUnite.org told me. "Why settle for less?"

Like me, Theisen, has spent years observing, reporting, and documenting election failure after failure as democracy's corners were cut with proprietary, secret vote-counting computers. She once thought, as I did, that optical-scanners with post-election "spot-checks" would be reliable.

Iran, however, was the last straw. The disastrous results highlighted, again, the most essential element for democracy: public observation. The country's contested Presidential election used hand-marked paper ballots, but they were never counted publicly. So the guessing games began, using as "evidence" pre-election polls, historical voting patterns, and the disbelief of passionate partisans.

Sound familiar? Post-election second-guessing has become more and more prevalent with each passing U.S election -- from Florida to Ohio to virtually every state in the country -- and for good reason. The counting isn’t publicly observed.

Enough.

"Hand counted paper ballots are the best available technology for conducting accurate, observable elections," says John Washburn, a Wisconsin computer expert. No "luddite", Washburn has testified before the U.S. Election Assistance Commission on e-voting.

"I love technology," he admits, and "I fear many of us technophiles are so blinded by the possible that we overlook the actual."Fully observable, precinct-based, Election Night hand-counting is a point of civic pride and community participation in 40% of New Hampshire's precincts. This is no behind-closed-doors, party-boss-counting of Boss Daley or Landslide Lyndon's day.

After polls close, fresh, bi-partisan counting crews relieve tired poll workers at each precinct. The crews count in groups of four – two calling out every vote, two marking each one down – as the citizenry watches, video-tapes, and assures the process is on the up and up. Ballots are never out of public oversight until counting is complete, usually before midnight; and results are publicly posted immediately. It's a very difficult system to game.

I'm open to other, equally observable tabulation methods. But after over five years of research and reporting, I've yet to find one. To paraphrase Churchill, public hand-tallies are the worst method for counting votes, except for all the others.

If hand-marked, hand-counted paper ballots are good enough for elections when you absolutely, positively have to know the correct result, aren’t they good enough for every election, every time?

Let’s begin with pilot projects -- not of higher-tech vote-counting computers -- but of publicly-observed, hand-counted paper ballots, with the ultimate goal of extending that Gold Standard to all of the U.S..

Now that would be progress.

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