A Few Thoughts On Paper Ballots

One of the items that the Georgia General Assembly will deliberate upon is how Georgia voters will cast their ballots in 2020. At this point, there will be some sort of paper trail. The question is, will the voter use a pen or a machine to mark their ballot?

I’ve had the privilege to serve on the absentee ballot review panel as the Republican representative when I lived in Walker County. I have also worked as a software developer and database administrator for a number of years. Both experiences have proven this one axiom: give a user an opportunity to mess something up, they probably will.

Paper ballots filled out by hand introduces variability into the process. I would say that the vast majority of voters would be able to fill out the ballot and be read by the electronic tabulator just fine. But! There are always “a few” ballots where the voter either accidentally votes for the wrong one and corrects their mistake or just outright changes their mind. Enters the review panel to interpret the intent of the voter.

“Most” of the time, interpreting the voter’s intent isn’t a problem because of obvious markings (they circle the name, write a note, something). Occasionally (rarely, but it does happen), the panel has to agree that an over-vote will have to be counted as a blank vote because the intent can’t be determined. Usually it doesn’t affect the outcome of the election, but there have been a few contests that come down to a single vote.

Georgia just wrapped up a contentious election for governor. There was a lot of debate over the handwritten paper absentee and provisional ballots. Personally, I’d rather not have a Year 2000 Florida hanging chad moment when both the Democratic Party of Georgia and the Georgia Republican Party sue and counter-sue with a tight election coming down to the interpretation on what a voter may or may not have meant by a stray mark. Am I being a bit over-dramatic? Maybe, but why put ourselves into that situation?

“But hand-marked ballots are cheaper!” The upfront cost “may” be cheaper, but the long-term costs of printing ballots would likely be pushed down to the individual counties. I don’t have hard numbers, but I’m operating on a hunch. I’d rather keep a new election system affordable for our counties rather than trying to take the cheap way out as a state.

Personally, I’m for ballot marking devices. It gives the voter an experience that they are used to and then prints a ballot on-demand to be fed through the tabulator that records the vote. The touchscreen interface wouldn’t record the vote, but it would have a similar experience where it would alert the voter to skipped races. That’s something a pen-and-paper ballot can’t do.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger made a big ask of the Georgia General Assembly during this week’s budget hearings of $150 million to purchase new voting machines for 2020. That may signal leaning towards ballot marking devices. Yes, it’s a big upfront cost, but in terms of government spending, shouldn’t a priority of government spending be fair, secure, and accurate elections?

Another idea that has been tossed around is a risk-limiting audit. I will save the details for another piece, but the skinny is that a hand count of statistical sampling of the paper ballots from the election are compared to the results from the tabulators. Few discrepancies means that there’s good confidence in the election results; substantial discrepancies would lead to a 100% hand recount of the election.

From my perspective, paper ballots without some sort of post-election verification make the paper ballots nothing more than a big security blanket–comforting, but mostly useless.

I hope our General Assembly will ask thoughtful questions and make a reasonable decision about the best way to proceed.


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