Paper Ballot Speech from a Few Years Back

Ed Note: I wrote this to give at a little gathering I was asked to attend in place of Andy Stephenson, to talk about the essentials of voting integrity.  I’m reposting it here to keep track of it….×316579


What do we need?

What do we want?

If we’re going to call ourselves a Democracy, what is the minimum that we the people require to participate?

I’m up here to talk about paper ballots, but why?

To me the answer is just one word: Faith.

In order for me to vote, I must have faith. Faith in the system, faith in the process, and it’s faith that makes me believe that it matters that I participate at all.

And anywhere along the way, if society, our government, elected officials, or individuals damage that faith, or cause me to question that faith, it doesn’t just hurt me, it hurts the system itself, it attacks our beliefs and undermines our Democracy.

Democracy can’t be bought with guns or bombs. Democracy is born as an idea and grows in the hearts and minds of those who believe in it, those who have faith in the system.

Why is the American Dollar stronger than the Peso? … at least the last time I checked…


Take away my ballot, my real life paper ballot, and you’ve undermined my faith at the most basic level. The tactile level, the level at which I can touch and feel the reality of my vote.

I’m not a Luddite, and I’m not against machines counting paper. But I wouldn’t trust a bank without deposit slips, or an ATM without a receipt.

I don’t have faith in Corporations, weathermen, or politicians. And I shouldn’t have to trust any of them to count my vote.

Referring to arms control treaties with the Soviet Union, Reagan once said, “Trust but verify ”. But I say, provide me a way to verify and then I can start to trust.

And don’t tell me that YOU trust the system. There’s got to be a way for me to trust the system. I need to be able to understand the process and verify the results in order to gain faith in the process. This is a new bill of goods those who would take away my paper ballot are trying to sell. They want me to believe in mathematics, a cryptography solution, VoteHere is one such company pushing this solution. Some fancy math, and a receipt that I can punch into the Internet that shows me that I voted. But no one seems able to explain to me how this works.

Fancy mathematics and fancy words loose my attention. While I might not be able to calculate the weight of the sun, I should be able to understand how we count votes. If we are going to have a Democratic society, it must allow me, and YOU, and any average citizen to be bad at math, but still be able to convince me that the system is valid. The average member of society isn’t going to understand a fancy system of cryptography, just as most of us realized long ago that fancy math hasn’t helped us predict the weather. A 60% chance of a valid election doesn’t sound very good to me. I just don’t have faith in fancy math.

I especially don’t have faith in fancy “proprietary ”math. Another word for proprietary is secret. So when someone tells me they have some fancy mathematics, a cryptography solution, that makes my paper ballot unnecessary, once again, I’m not really that interested. Because I don’t have much faith in mathematics that I don’t understand. And if you have to resort to explaining the system with metaphor and simile, or if you need several experts to explain it to me, you’ve lost me. And I’ll have no faith in the system you build.

These machines, these blackbox voting machines. Already in place in Snohomish and Yakima. They require me to trust without verification. Trust the election officials, trust the government, trust the companies, trust the programmers, trust the mathematicians. But frankly none of these people ever had my trust to begin with.

The media, the voting officials, the voting machine companies, even the Supreme Court, is arguing that speed is of the essence, and obviously these machines are far speedier without paper ballots clogging up the process. But I don’t care so much about speed, I’m more interested in accuracy. The battle isn’t for speed. My faith isn’t challenged by slow and steady bookkeeping with proper auditing. It’s challenged by secrets and lies. And once you’ve lost it, faith is a hard thing to regain.

These companies, and our election officials have lied to us, are lying to us, and will continue to lie to us, they’ve committed fraud, and it IS a conspiracy. It’s a conspiracy to get rid of paper ballots, and I for one am losing my faith in the system.

Don’t be fooled though, it’s not just about the paper. The devil is in the details, and the details are in the words used. It’s a verbal shell game, where “paper trail ”and “paper receipt ”are used to confuse you.

The words paper and ballot should not be separated. The go together hand in hand, and to separate them undermines the strength they have when unified. Paper is tangible, traceable, hard to destroy. Electrons, on the other hand are small, we can’t see them, most of us would have a hard time really explaining what they are. When I loose a $20 bill, I notice it’s gone. When I lose an electron, I don’t really notice…. unless my computer crashes, or I can’t find a term paper, or my music skips. Scratch a piece of paper, I can still read what you wrote, scratch my new CD, it’s worthless.

Paper trail, paper receipt, what do these terms mean? To me it means someone’s trying to put one over on me. Cause when it comes to voting I know what a ballot is. It’s been defined by law over hundreds of years. When I go to the grocery story I get a receipt, when I sell a house I sign a contract, and when I vote I get a ballot. Similes mean similar, they don’t mean the “same ”, and people who know the difference use the wrong words on purpose. They want some wiggle room… they want to change the system, they want to redefine the terms, get rid of the paper, turn the ballot into electrons, and give you a receipt, or a paper trail. Trick you into having faith in the system. So let’s be clear here, and let’s not mince words, a receipt is something that I get when I buy a banana, a ballot is something with which I vote. I’m not fooled by the verbal shell game. My eyes are still on the ball, and I’m not letting go of my paper ballot any time soon. Too adopt the words of the NRA you’ll have to pry my paper ballot from my cold dead hands.

Words have meaning, and meaning builds faith. Faith is built on a foundation of trust. Take away my trust, and you’ve undermined the foundation. Bastardize the meanings built on that foundation and you weaken the structure that holds up even weaker words. And just as assuredly as a house starts to crumble as the foundation is eroded, and the walls start to fall, democracy is being undermined as the meaning is corrupted and the foundation is slowly torn from underneath. Take away my paper ballot, and you strip away the keystone on which I build my faith in the system.

So all this talk about faith, and really so far, very little about the actuality of how a paper ballot works to increase my trust in the system. You may ask me how a system of paper, in which ballot boxes turn up in Lake Michigan, or are lost in the back of the rooms of King County, inspires my faith.

The key is, that they do turn up later. One might be able to steal a few hundred votes, a few ballot boxes might disappear, but their very physicality makes those ballots hard to destroy. But click a button, and send a few electrons off into the “ether ”, who knows if it ever gets where it’s going, there’s no physicality, and if it’s lost, where will we find it. My term paper that I lost in college is still lost, it never turned up in the back of the lecture hall, or under the bed in my dorm room. Electronic votes that are lost will never be found in the back room, and no ballots will ever turn up in the river, or in the trunk of someone ’s car. Just because the machine recount tells me the same number when I ask, doesn’t mean it’s more accurate. Data can be precise and simultaneously inaccurate.

Paper ballots are not a panacea, they won’t fix the system. No, they are simply the foundation on which the system is built. There are many layers above the foundation on which the house of democracy is built, and there are many checks and balances that must be in place to assure that our votes are counted accurately. Random audits, checking the paper against the machine counts, correlating the number of votes with registered voters, all good and necessary ways to double check the accuracy of the process. And any system is going to have a certain calculable margin of error, and if any of us are going to be honest about what just happened in Washington, the margin of victory fell well inside that margin of error, regardless of the recount, neither side can statistically claim victory, so the only victory left was a legal victory. There are obviously more than one way to lose faith in a system of belief.

But without a solid foundation there’s nothing for me to build my faith upon.

Voting in this country use to be a public process. We voted in public, the vote was counted in public, by the public. We trusted in the system, because we the people were the system. And every battle we the people fought was to increase that trust, either to increase the number and types of people that voted, or to increase the validity of the system by reducing the influence of others on our personal choices. But now we vote in secret, using a secret ballot, on machines with secret code. I think something has been lost here, don’t you?


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