If Donald Trump ever does leave the White House, we can in large part thank paper ballots.
Trump’s desperate assault on 2020’s popular vote has drawn justifiable contempt. But had this election predominantly been conducted on the computerized touchscreen machines that have dominated our electoral process since Florida in 2000, Trump could well be headed for a stolen second term.
Hand-marked and hand-counted paper ballots have long been at the core of the U.S.’s rising election protection movement. They were largely scorned after the disastrous 2000 campaign, when badly designed “butterfly ballots” and “hanging chads” undermined Florida’s election, giving George W. Bush an Electoral College victory despite losing the nationwide popular vote.
In response, Congress voted for the $2 billion Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Deeming them a clean, efficient way to vote, HAVA spread computerized touch screen machines throughout the country. However, the push to spread the machines was tainted after their main backer, Ohio Congressman Bob Ney, went to prison on unrelated corruption charges.
High-profile hackers’ mockery of the machines has also helped to damage their credibility. For example, one professor hacked a “secure” touchscreen and got it to play the University of Michigan fight song.
According to the highly respected Verified Voting website, in 2006 less than half the nation’s votes (47.7 percent) were cast in jurisdictions using mostly hand-marked paper ballots. In 2020 it was 70 percent. Another 18.1 percent were cast on ballot-marking devices used to mark paper ballots. Thus, this year, nearly 9 out of every 10 votes cast in the U.S. were marked on paper. Virtually all were counted with digital scanners, leaving the preserved original ballots intact for Trump’s bitterly contested recounts.
By contrast, the use of direct recording electronic (DRE) “black box” touchscreen machines dropped from 43.9 percent in 2006 to just 11.9 percent in 2020. Some of those DRE machines allow the voter to view a poorly printed, usually fragile paper record to confirm how one voted, but others do not. In either case, the paper has been unusable for recounts, which have relied entirely on the electronic equipment itself, making them virtually meaningless.
Over the years, frequent breakdowns and critical shortages of those DRE machines have led to long Election Day lines. Lights on the touchscreens have often gone haywire, falsely indicating voters had chosen one candidate when in fact they’d chosen another. Critics have branded the process “push and pray.” Since they fail to create a usable paper trail, these machines turn recounts into a bitter charade. And when the official results tabulated by the machines have not jibed with exit polls (as has happened often), those unhappy with the results have had an easier time deeming the election “stolen.”
Another major risk involved with computerized touch screen machines is that nearly all are privately owned by companies like Diebold, Dominion and ES&S, which have been unwilling to make public their source codes. The courts have ruled in their favor, calling the codes that have decided our elections “proprietary.” With their operational cores hidden, there’s thus been no reliable way to confirm the outcome of an election conducted on electronic touchscreens.
Had the 2020 election been predominantly run on those machines, there’d be no reliable way to deter Trump’s incredible claims of widespread fraud. He has predictably attacked results from Dominion ballot marking devices in Georgia. But his attacks couldn’t change the Georgia result because the preserved paper ballots were available for essentially unassailable recounts.
Had touchscreen machines with black box counting devices been as prevalent nationwide as they were in 2006, the 2020 outcome would be impossible to sort out, and Trump could skate through the confusion.
But with carefully preserved paper ballots in use throughout the U.S., and with the whole world watching, recounts reliably done in key swing states like Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania have protected this election, undercutting Trump’s attempts to steal it.
In recent years, scanning devices have been installed to read inserted ballots, producing digital images that can be tallied almost instantly. When the machines’ coding is open to public scrutiny, and when the digital images are preserved along with the ballots, the system can be remarkably fast, reliable and secure.
Since the 1980s, Oregon, Washington State, Utah, Colorado and Hawaii have been voting almost entirely by mail, with great success. This year’s pandemic made voting in person risky. With enthusiastic support from election protection activists, California, Nevada, Vermont, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., also mailed ballots to all eligible voters. Many other states required an application to be filled out. All saw huge increases in hand-marked paper ballots that were mailed in, walked in or put in drop boxes.
But this year was also characterized by blatant acts of voter suppression on a very large scale.
The demand came straight from the top, as Trump complained that if voting rights are expanded, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Indeed, fearing a diverse tsunami of young voters — many of them subsequently mobilized by the mass anti-racism marches sparked by the murder of George Floyd — Trump understood all too well his party’s motives for strictly limiting the number of people who actually receive ballots.
Thus, according to the federal Election Assistance Commission, more than 17 million citizens nationwide were stripped from the registration rolls between the 2016 and 2018 elections. Many in-person voting centers required citizens to vote on hackable touchscreens, or to use unreliable marking devices, or to accept provisional ballots whose fates were often unknown.
Through his appointed crony, Louis DeJoy, Trump also assaulted the U.S. Postal Service in a blatant attempt to sabotage vote-by-mail. Reports were widespread of ballots sent out late, to wrong addresses or not at all. Thousands were found in mail centers undelivered on and after Election Day. Estimates of the percentage of mailed-out ballots that never made it back to voting centers generally range up to 6 percent, numbers far beyond many electoral margins.
There were plenty of other problems. But the bottom line remains that tens of millions of paper ballots still reside in the archives. Where their scanned images are preserved, most are easily trackable. Recounts in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona have withstood critical Trump assaults.
In the bigger picture, in the face of Trump’s massive attack on voter registrations, a concerted, well-informed movement to restore the right to vote to millions of disenfranchised citizens became a major factor in the 2020 vote. Grassroots efforts to get newly registered and re-registered citizens to actually cast their ballot also had an impact.
In fact, those efforts may have been decisive, especially among young millennial Generation Z citizens who voted in record numbers. More than 60 percent of them voted against Trump, possibly providing Biden with his margin of victory.
Yet, also decisive has been the 20-year campaign for hand-marked paper ballots. The 2020 pandemic was a prime mover in getting these ballots mailed out. But movement pressure had already helped vastly expand their overall use.
With their scanned electronic images, paper ballots have provided 2020’s vital bulwark against an anti-electoral coup. Without them, we would be buried in electronic chaos — an intractable mess — the perfect swamp for a would-be tyrant.
With protected voter registration rolls, safe places to vote, and long windows to do so, and with hand-marked, digitally scanned paper ballots, we have a proven, workable road map toward a real democracy — a safe, transparent, reliable way to cast, count and verify our votes.
Getting there on a permanent basis will take every ounce of our commitment. But the potential payback is beyond measure.