In at least one State, activists are pushing hard to hold elections with paper ballots and official hand counts. The Arkansas Voter Integrity Initiative has been trying to switch the State to an all-paper system since at least 2021. Over the past few days, this initiative has gotten some fresh attention.
How does Arkansas run its elections?
Arkansas currently uses products and software by Election Systems and Software, Inc. (ES&S). They are the major competitor to Dominion Voting Systems. Unlike Dominion, ES&S has not, thus far, had any “critical vulnerabilities” reports. Still, “machines” are “machines.”
In nearly every Arkansas county, voters must use a Ballot Marking Device – which ES&S also calls a Universal Voting System. The ExpressVote machine lets voters touch a screen to select candidates (or Yes or No on public questions). It then prints out a card, about the size of the old Hollerith/IBM paper punch cards in the pre-electronic era. The voters then carries that to a scanner and inserts it into a specially molded tray.
In Virginia, voters hand-mark 8½ by 11 inch paper ballots, and feed those to a scanner in most jurisdictions. They make ExpressVote available for use by any voter who, for whatever reason, cannot hold a pen or has any other difficulty marking a paper ballot. (Your editor, as an Officer of Election, has not yet seen a voter use the ExpressVote machine in nearly three years of service.)
ArkansasVII holds that insisting that all voters use a machine even to mark a ballot, diminishes the control a voter has over the casting of a ballot. Switching to hand-marked ballots would eliminate any risk of mis-marking of a ballot without the voter noticing. (The Americans with Disabilities Act would require some compromise for voters who can’t mark their own ballots.)
One county takes a step toward full paper
On August 19, Andrew Appel at Freedom to Tinker reported on a change by the Searcy County Quorum Court. Now voters (who can) will mark 8½ by 11 ballots by filling in ovals, as voters do in Virginia. And, again as in Virginia, they will feed these to a scanner. But unlike the Virginia case, the scanner-tabulator count will not be official. The scanner lets precincts report preliminary, unofficial results. Officers of Election will then hand count the ballots for an official count.
Those same OOEs can also count the ExpressVote ballots. In fact, the hand count will bring another improvement for ballot security. An ExpressVote ballot has a machine-readable bar code and a human-readable listing of the voter’s choices. But in the usual case, the machine reads the bar codes and not the human-readable text. Now a human OOE will read the human-readable text, and that will be the official marking. This will catch any discrepancy between the bar code and the text, and do it at once.
Apparently the Association of Arkansas Counties is actively lobbying against any such change for other counties. Cleburne County, in January, voted for such a hand count – then flipped back to machine counts and ExpressVote ballots.
But ArkansasVII has also sued to force officials to use human-readable text only for an official count. The activists will argue on September 11, 2023 for a preliminary injunction against the barcodes.
Two days ago, someone posted to X that Arkansas had implemented hand-marked paper ballots for all future elections.
Sadly, that’s not the case, as the Associated Press reported, and Col. Conrad Reynolds, head of ArkansasVII, confirmed.
But the idea of hand-marked and hand-counted paper ballots is gaining traction. Arizona State Senator Wendy Rogers urged Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R-Ark.) to support the change.
Col. Reynolds’ organization is trying to recruit Justices of the Peace to support the change.
And Andrew Appel appeared with Reynolds on his podcast channel to explain the advantages of paper ballots and hand counting. (Incidentally this is Professor Andrew Appel, Chairman of Computer Science, Princeton University.)
Could Arkansas do things as France does?
Recall that CNAV, two months ago, explained how France handles its elections. In 1975 France abolish mail-in balloting and has never resumed it. A voter receives a collection of pre-printed bulletins (BULL-tans) showing candidate names and races, or public questions and answers. These could come in the mail or at check-in. At check-in, the voter receives an envelope, which he takes into a booth. There he puts his selection of bulletins into the envelope, seals it, and takes it to the ballot box. At that point the Chief OOE (or his Assistant) formally checks the voter’s identification. When he is satisfied, he opens the box and lets the voter insert his envelope.
After close of polls, pairs of OOEs count all ballots. The French have this down to a science and can report results within 24 hours.
Absentee voting does not happen by mail. Instead, a voter who knows he can’t make it to the polls must nominate a proxy to vote for him. He and his proxy must appear before a judge, a court clerk, or a police officer.
One X user suggested one other way to handle absentee balloting:
Signature verification has been the most glaring weakness for absentee balloting in the United States. This has led some activists to call for abolishing absentee balloting altogether. Their theory: the temporary “disenfranchisement” of ill, away-on-business, or military voters is worth the ironclad guarantee of election integrity. Very few activists would go that far, however.
The usual objection to the switch to hand-marking and hand-counting is the time it would take. That objection is without foundation. EE&S does make scanner-tabulators that can read human-readable text. And the French experience tells us that hand counting is possible. The notion that hand counting would make people wait until the next election cycle for results, is child’s talk.
In fact, the September 11 hearing will have implications beyond Arkansas. This goes far beyond EE&S having clients throughout the country. Dominion Voting Services’ machine-marked ballots are totally unreadable, for example. An injunction would set a precedent for other States to reexamine how they tabulate elections.
Even the original Print-O-Matic machines were not verifiable. Furthermore the obvious solution to the problem of counting several races on one piece of paper is to have separate pieces of paper for all races and public questions. French-style bulletins would solve that problem.
In short, America has no reason not to switch to paper ballots. So long as any question can turn on a single vote, elections must be able to account for every single vote in order to be trustworthy. Only hand-marked and hand-counted paper ballots can satisfy that requirement.
Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.
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