Why Paper Matters

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Technology has become an important part of helping us execute our choices, be it where to eat, work out, travel, and increasingly in one of the most important decisions we have in life as Americans: voting. In Texas, as elsewhere in the nation, there’s a push to move voting away from paper ballots to digital, even to the point of removing paper trails as a backup to check the integrity of the vote. Often it is argued that this will make for a smoother voting process, but at this year’s Republican Party of Texas Convention a few of the Senate District caucuses decided to give pure digital voting a try and chaos and confusion ensued.

In the Senate District 25 Caucus, the vote for Chairman of the Republican Party of Texas between James Dickey and Cindy Asche quickly erupted into a firestorm as many began questioning the integrity of the vote. Originally, the computer showed Cindy Asche had won 51%-49%, but then as the chair began examining the results county by county it became clear the computer had miscalculated. Florida Election 2000 anyone? But, as there were no paper backups to conduct a manual recount, the only option available was to examine the vote counts county by county before the computer tabulated the grand totals. After this long process it was discovered that the winner was in fact James Dickey by 50.65% to 49.35% of the total weighted vote. However, if the computer miscalculated the grand total, how can we be sure the totals in each of the county are accurate?

It was unclear what the exact error was that caused this confusion, but backup paper trails are used for this exact purpose: to ensure the integrity of the vote and something physical to look at in case of computer error or manipulation. Small wonder that many of the delegates were angry with this debacle, some were even wanting to switch to paper ballots. When it came to how to vote, delegates were told to use either A or B, but the computer used the numbers 1 and 2 to report the final totals for Asche and Dickey. This caused even more confusion for the delegates and chaos for the chairman.

Senate District 10 Delegate Matt Spano had his own nightmarish ordeal. He recalled it “was something I would compare only to banging my head against a wall.” Is that at all what our voting processes should be like? Remember, this is just the Republican Convention of Texas, but could you imagine any of our counties adopting a similar system for our local and statewide elections? Too many of us already bang our heads over who to vote for, the voting process itself shouldn’t be the same. What’s more, the leaders in SD 10 understood the system as much as SD 25. “They couldn’t figure it out so we had to call the vendor and have them send a representative down to ‘fix’ it.  Then the chair would tell us to vote but then say ‘oh wait not yet’ because the computer wasn’t ready.”  Spano couldn’t see a backup paper trail at all, which again provides no security against computer error or vote tampering.

Confusion, complexity, and errors are all one thing, and some might dismiss them. But what if your vote could be traced back to you? This is what SD 12 Delegate Lisa Grimaldi had to face in her caucus. “On the second day we had more of a fiasco in that when we signed in we were given a voting machine and it has a number on the back and that number of the device goes beside our name so they know who doesn’t return theirs.” When asked if this meant that each delegate’s vote on the system could be traced back to them, “the response was yes it could be, but they wouldn’t save that information.” How comforting. Even more so when Grimaldi noticed that they were not using a secure program to calculate the votes. “I believe from what I saw everything was spit onto an excel spreadsheet.”

RPT told DAT the cost for these machines was around $85,000, split amongst the 16 Senate Districts that opted to use them. That averages to around $5,300 each of these Senate Districts paid for this chaos. So much for being the party of “fiscal responsibility.”

Computers can be a great force multiplier, but they do have their limitations. As time marches on it’s going to become a bigger part of our voting process, but we should always be opting for technology that is easy to use, has paper backups to ensure the integrity of the vote, and the ballot will always be secret. Above all, secret ballots protecting voters from reprisals and special interests, and paper backups allowing for verification are the most important. The Republican Party of Texas Convention 2018 was a small test case for technology without paper backups, and the verdict is “No way!”

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