Democracy Needs A Paper Trail

As I’m writing this, it’s several days since the Iowa caucuses, our nation’s first step towards choosing a Democratic presidential nominee to face off against President Donald Trump. And it’s also several days after one of the more spectacular election night snafus in recent memory. 

The Iowa fiasco has already drawn widespread condemnation, and threatened to undermine public confidence in this aspect of our democratic process. As I watched it all unfold, my first thought was that I’m glad that I’m not an official in the Iowa Democratic Party. But my second thought was that maybe this caucus disaster is actually a blessing in disguise.

Now, with the integrity of a key election called into question by what appears to be multiple technological failures, maybe Americans will begin to seriously question if they truly feel that having their voting information logged, stored, transferred, and counted by all-too-fallible and insecure technology is a good choice for our democracy. 

Maybe Americans will start to understand that just because a number appears on their iPhone screen, it doesn’t mean that number is necessarily correct.

Maybe Americans will question if anyone who is sitting behind a fancy desk in a television studio is speaking authoritatively, or just speculating on an inherently unknowable outcome just like the rest of us at home.

As the election night events unfolded on CNN, even host Chris Cuomo asked why he should have confidence in the results of the Iowa caucuses once they are eventually released.

That comment made me wonder why he would have had more confidence in the results if they had been reported Monday night.  If they had been, maybe Cuomo simply would not have given a moment’s thought to how the results were aggregated behind the scenes.  It would have been just: “Breaking news: The Iowa Democratic Party has reported that twenty-one of their fifty-six delegates will be awarded to…”, and if anyone did want to talk about how they tabulate the results: “there’s an app for that.”

But, as this mess of an election goes to show, it’s a grave mistake to take the security and viability of election technology for granted. Our democratic process is too important, and our country’s faith in it is too fragile at this moment, to leave it up to the many vulnerabilities and uncertainties of tech alone. 

I was a computer engineer earlier in my career.  I know that computers are indisputably good at some things, such as calculating payroll. If your company uses digital payroll and you look at your paystub and subtract the deductions from your pay, I would be pretty surprised if you don’t agree with your net pay. That’s because payroll is a pretty concrete, mathematical calculation. If it’s wrong, it’s usually pretty easy to see where, because numbers simply won’t match up. If it’s wrong, you can complain, and the problem will most likely be pretty easy to fix – if someone’s trying to steal your money on payroll, it’s easy to prove and easy to get some help.

Voting, however, does not have any of these attributes. Voters have no real way to know if their votes are really counted or not, there are a multitude of bad actors actively seeking to suppress or refuse to count votes, and, as the complicated Iowa caucus system shows, it’s not always as easy as simply counting who wins the most.

That is precisely why we should have paper ballots marked by voters – so that someone can look at them later, and be confident that the count is right by looking at a stack of paper that is open and accessible to all who participate in the process.

After all, the purpose of counting votes accurately is not to help the winners know what their mandate is.  The purpose of counting votes accurately is so that the losers can be confident that they really lost fair and square – and that the voters who our democracy relies on know that this process is open, fair, and makes their voices heard. 

That’s why the takeaway of the Iowa caucus meltdown should be that we have a lot of work to do in restoring that democratic process, and it is absolutely paramount that we do it quickly.

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