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Without Paper Ballots, Fear of Vote Rigging Clouds 2016 Primaries

To ensure election integrity, officials should use paper ballots, counted in public and recounted or audited when necessary.

Part of the Series

“Something smells in the Democratic Party,” blasted The Des Moines Register in a scathing February 5 editorial, after the unverifiable Iowa caucuses on February 1 ended in an inconclusive photo finish between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

The Democratic caucus process, which did not provide voters with paper ballots, left many questioning whether Clinton really won, or whether the count was rigged to favor the insider establishment candidate by her supporters in the Iowa Democratic Party. Is Sanders’ outsider campaign the victim of yet another example of the political “shenanigans” that seem to be a growing tradition in US party primaries?

The Des Moines Register, which has endorsed Clinton, took an applause-worthy stand of journalistic integrity (almost never seen) by questioning the voting process that benefitted its favored candidate.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

“Clinton campaign officials are trying to shut down the questions, lashing out at Sanders backers for peddling conspiracy theories,” reported the Register. “It also doesn’t help the optics that the state party chairwoman drove around for years in a car with HRC2016 license plates,” stated the Register’s most recent article.

The Register explained that in the Democrats’ caucus process, voters physically arrange themselves around the room to signal their support for a presidential candidate and are counted by precinct captains. It also noted that in six precincts ties were settled by coin flips, so that a handful of delegates were assigned by pure chance. The entire process made a recount impossible, and a Democratic official confirmed that there is also no recount provision.

A paper trail is crucial as a first line of defense against election mistakes or manipulation.

Hillary Clinton was quick to claim a victory, despite a hair-thin .02 percent margin, with many precincts still not having reported their count, as some party volunteers were reported AWOL on election night. Her campaign’s rush to claim the throne only exacerbated cynics and prompted raised eyebrows. “Hillary Clinton won Iowa. End of story,” declared Matt Paul, Clinton’s Iowa campaign director. But for many voters, it felt like Florida in 2000 when Fox News prematurely called the election, prompting George W. Bush to claim victory and raising a storm of controversy.

The media have recently reported that after some investigation, the Iowa Democratic Party did discover errors in the results from five precincts, but they insist the outcome of the caucuses remains the same, with Clinton winning by a quarter of a percentage point.

Sanders’ campaign initially demanded to see the official state counts, but was denied. Sanders later decided that it was impossible to really determine who won, and politely called the contest a draw.

The end result reminded election defense activists of the Republican caucus in 2012, where Mitt Romney was anointed the victor, but it was later discovered that Rick Santorum had actually won. In that contest, many believed that the GOP may have manipulated the reported vote totals.

In the final moments of the documentary movie Mitt, which covers his 2012 campaign, Romney makes an unusual comment, quoting an unnamed campaign member who said to him: “In some ways, we kind of had to steal the Republican nomination. Our party is Southern, evangelical and populist. And you’re Northern, and you’re Mormon, and you’re rich. And these do not match well with our party.”

Rigging may not have occurred in the 2016 Iowa caucus; perhaps the Democrats were simply “disorganized,” as one party official claimed.

But there is an important lesson here, and we ignore it at the peril of the democratic process.

Paper Ballots: A Key Principle of Democracy

One of the key principles of protecting the integrity of any election is that officials should always use paper ballots, counted in public, and recounted or audited when necessary, and that a strict regime for ballot “chain of custody” should be applied. This was not followed in the Democratic Iowa caucus, and that’s why mistrust and mystery still shrouds that election a week later.

A paper trail is crucial as a first line of defense against mistakes or manipulation. The party should have ensured that every precinct provided paper ballots and publicly hand-counted the original document on site; this is the only time-tested means of verifying the will of the voters.

The Republicans seem to have done better, in this regard. Video from some Iowa precincts on the GOP side shows caucus captains publicly sorting and counting paper ballots, and dropping them into different baskets for each candidate, with witnesses videotaping the count. This process was rudimentary, and for that reason it can be reasonably trusted. Ostensibly there is a paper record if questions arise. Beyond this, the paper record must also be made accessible as a public document and not kept secret by party officials.

Meanwhile on the Democratic side, a news video of at least one precinct shows a large group of voters, perhaps 200, raising their hands for a particular candidate, to be counted by an individual in order to achieve a final tally. The counter would then upload the final tally onto an application provided by Microsoft.

Reports were tweeted that the Microsoft system failed and was overwhelmed at times on election night. The cloud-based system controlled by a megacorporation is described as “secure” though – as with all private, computerized and online systems – there is absolutely no way for that to be true.

Democratic officials later admitted that they also did not have enough volunteers in every precinct, which prompted one commentator to quip, “If the Democrats don’t know how to organize an election, how can they expect to rule the country”? The Iowa Democratic Committee and the Democratic National Committee have no one to blame but themselves for the fact that they conducted this first 2016 test of the presidential candidates in a manner that left doubts in voters’ minds.

As this election season takes off in New Hampshire and South Carolina, it’s important to learn what can be done better next time, and what pitfalls lay ahead in the primary season and in the general election where most votes will be counted by unverified, easily rigged electronic voting systems.

We need to establish standards for voting that uphold the most fundamental principles of democratic elections: full transparency and public oversight.

Where paper ballots still exist, voters and candidates should demand a public hand count at the voting precinct, before the ballots are moved. And we should entirely outlaw paperless touch-screen voting machines, such as those used in South Carolina, which have been proven easy to manipulate.

Where optical scanners are used to count ballots, we should ensure that vote-tabulating software is not programmed and owned by partisan voting machine vendors, and that the ballots are audited by hand to verify the computer count.

Other countries are actually banning riggable electronic voting altogether, including Ireland, which sent its insecure electronic voting machines to the landfill. The German High Court upheld the “public nature of elections” and determined the right of citizens to oversee their vote count. In practice, this can only be done by casting and counting paper ballots in public.

This is a right-to-know issue. Until we design US voting systems around the ironclad principle of transparency, we will never secure democracy.

Whoever wins an election, we must be assured that their victory was indeed the will of the voters.