Democracy requires a paper trail

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February 10, 2020

Democracy requires a paper trail

Written by Robin V. Sears for The Star. Click here to read the original.

As a very young scrutineer in local election campaigns, I would sit for long hours witnessing the fairness of the voting procedures in my poll. A short dinner break and then I would then sit with the two other party reps and several election officials, for many more hours that night, scrutinizing the count. It was an emotional, even visceral experience. The three collections of unfolded ballot papers would rise slowly, all eyes riveted on which was tallest and growing fastest.

By 10 p.m. or so, we would have checked and doubled checked the totals. The boxes were refilled, locked and sealed. We were the only people in the world who knew who had just won Poll 342. Sworn to secrecy we were freed to go to our various election night parties. Our vows were observed more in the breach, and soon there would be a jungle telegraph signalling who the victor was likely to be. The chief returning officer would finally make it official.

In close elections, the count would start all over again, the next day. If there were disputes about some ballots, a judge would decide in a full judicial recount a few days later. The bedrock of the system’s integrity was … paper. Paper and its very committed protectors, who guarded their locked ballot boxes as if they were filled with gold. In terms of the integrity of a democratic election, they were.

The debacle in Iowa, like the one that struck Democrats and Republicans there before, and most infamously the one that denied Al Gore the presidency in 2000, have one feature in common. The increasing reliance of American elections on electronics, not paper. Bytes not bits, as it were.

Yes, sometimes they have “hanging chads” debates where human eyes try to second guess a computer’s count. Sometimes they have an informal paper record of local votes by precinct captains. But rarely do they have the almost religious ritual and security procedures that protect the integrity of Canadian paper-based balloting.

Ballots can be stolen, stuffed, burned, and forged, yes. Even that’s hard to do in a system where they are protected by a praetorian guard of election officials. But they can never, in their thousands, be made to disappear at a key stroke. Or worse, be made to generate a different outcome and victor than voters intended — as malfunctioning technology or malign interference can do in a microsecond.i

We are developing a very Canadian compromise between bits and bytes. A paper ballot remains the foundation, but it is often electronically counted. That count, however, is backed by a paper ballot and a paper tally sheet generated by the computer. Let’s experiment with online voting, but build it so there is a full reconstruction possible on paper.

In Iowa, one cheap, faulty app destroyed the integrity of an entire state’s vote. It’s not hard to imagine the Russians deciding which precincts in which Pennsylvania counties require a small tweak to ensure that their most subservient American president ever, remains in office. On election night it would be very hard to detect. Discovery days or worse weeks later would throw American politics once again into a crisis of trust and turmoil.

There is a reason that as heavily technologically dependent a nation as Japan favours cash more heavily than any other rich country. Yes, it is probably tax “management” in some cases. But mostly it is the security that comes from giving or receiving “real money” as incontrovertible proof of payment or sale. There is a reason that Americans cling to cheque writing more than any other rich nation. You sign a piece of paper yourself, and your bank is compelled to return it or a facsimile as proof of payment.

The underlying fear is often, bits versus bytes, once more. A bank’s computers can fail or be made to. Successful fraudulent digital transactions happen a lot. Or as we saw in the Libor currency trading scandal, verbal signals between conspiring traders can be transformed into digital fraud undetectably.

Of the billions lost to credit card fraud annually, how much would be possible with an ability to create an end-to-end paper trail of every step? Some argue blockchain technology offers the same level of accountability as paper documents, but millions of bitcoins have already been fraudulently traded successfully.

Where the confidence of citizens in the inviolability of their democratic voice is concerned, let’s never forget that the paper ballot will always be the greatest insurance against electoral fraud or mere bungling.