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Paper Ballots: A Faux Controversy?

This is a transcript for podcast episode 19, aired on March 28, 2021

Last week on this podcast, I talked about H.R.1.; the “For the People Act,” which recently passed through the US House of Representatives and is now before the US Senate in the form of S.B.1. I also talked about the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

The ability - and the right - to vote in the US has been a hotly debated topic since our nation’s founding. Constitutional amendments and voting rights acts have been used to establish and promote the right of every citizen to vote for well over 150 years.

Yet with all that effort, here we are; it’s 2021, and we struggle as much as ever with voting rights.

In this podcast episode, I’d like to focus on the implementation of voting rights. More specifically, the mechanics of ensuring that people can vote and that their votes count. I’ll talk about electronic versus paper ballots and why, in my opinion, paper ballots are not the panacea being promoted primarily by people on the left. In fact, I believe the focus on paper ballots may be a major distraction - courtesy of the far right - from more urgent underlying issues with voting.

I think it’s safe to say that voting rights mean nothing if people do not have physical access to cast their ballots. Likewise, voting rights means nothing if casted ballots are discarded or miscounted or manipulated. Equally, if voters find themselves turned away at the polls for technical reasons, why even bother to vote? Finally, voting rights means little if the method of voting is too restrictive, such as limited polling places, or limited polling hours or the inability to receive food and water while waiting in line to cast a ballot.

In other words, whether you’re casting your ballot on paper or through use of an electronic gizmo, if you can’t actually get to the point of casting your ballot, then the method of voting is moot.

One of the main reasons people push for paper voting is security. It’s difficult to argue with a piece of paper that has a voter’s choice clearly marked out. But my point is that, when it comes to the argument over voting security, a piece of paper plays a very small role. In fact, paper alone does not meet all the needs of security.

I know how this sounds. Trust the machine, right? But let me ask you this; when you cast your paper ballot, how do you know it really counted? Can you trace it back and verify that it was scanned correctly? And do you have recourse if you suspect that it was miscounted?

On an aggregate level, if there is suspicion, paper ballots can be recounted by machine, or even recounted by hand. But still, individual voters have no recourse.

Paper ballots can address this issue, but only if enhanced by electronics. For example, once your ballot is scanned, its information gets entered into a computer database and becomes part of the total.

Now bear with me, because I’m going to run with this idea: after I cast my ballot, I should be able to go online to not only verify that information from the ballot was entered correctly, but I can also see how it contributed to the overall tally.

This ability - to validate whether my ballot was correctly scanned - really minimizes the need for paper. I mean, once it’s scanned and entered into the database, it doesn’t matter if it came from an actual piece of paper or from some app running on my mobile phone. If it’s incorrectly tallied, I have recourse for disputing it.

I know, there’s a ton of security that must be in place when we don’t use paper. The fear is that nefarious actors are going to try and hack into the system and steal votes. But that’s possible anyway, isn’t it? In the current system, once you cast your paper ballot, it all gets scanned and then goes electronic anyway. The only thing paper does is give a fallback position when everything must be counted by hand. But then, is that even necessary when every single voter can validate the correctness of his or her ballot in the system and see how it affected the overall count?

So I'm going to push this idea of having a voting app running on my phone. Or maybe through a website. Why? Because this method of voting solves one huge problem; it’s a problem that I believe is much larger than the controversy over paper versus electronic.

The problem with voting these days is what I call the conservative funnel. What is the conservative funnel? Well, it’s a term I just made up, but the concept goes like this; if you want to restrict the flow of people casting their ballots, you constrict the neck of the funnel through which they pass. You do this by minimizing the number of polling places in the neighborhoods of the people you feel are not going to support you. You restrict the voting hours. You restrict the ability to get food and water while people stand in line waiting to get through the funnel.

Consider, for example, that the Georgia legislature recently passed a voter suppression bill. Ironically, when Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed this bill into law, he did so under a painting of the Callaway Plantation, where more than 100 Black people had been enslaved and terrorized. And during this process, State Representative Park Cannon, a Black woman, was handcuffed and dragged away merely for knocking on the Governor’s door, as she demanded to witness the signing of this restrictive bill. The symbolism couldn’t have been more stark.

You get the picture here? Now if everyone had the ability to vote through their mobile phones, there would be no conservative funnel in the first place. This, I believe, is where the real fight needs to take place.

My point is that paper ballots are not the issue here. Access is everything.

When people have wide access to voting, and when polling places are a thing of the past, the conservative funnel would also become a relic of the past. It won’t be a matter of going to the polls to vote. It won’t be a matter of polling hours or whether you’re entitled to get refreshments while you wait your turn in line. It will simply be a matter of accessing a polling application, submitting your choices and - most importantly - verifying that these choices actually counted. This is democracy on the move.

My fear is that the controversy over paper ballots is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a paper tiger. Its insidious purpose, I believe, is to lure people into a false fight and to get them to ignore the real mechanism of voter suppression.

Am I dreaming of a utopian future that provides unrestricted access for all voters? I don’t think so. I’m old enough to remember Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. And more recently, I’ve seen how we can put rovers on Mars. Is it too much to ask that we, as a nation, develop a system of voting that provides everyone the ability to vote? I think not. The challenges are formidable, indeed, but not insurmountable. This is still America, and we’re still pretty good at solving problems.

Unfortunately, I’m also old enough to remember how our nation was hoodwinked into fighting a number of foreign wars based on thinly transparent lies and rumors from nefarious actors pretending to be politicians. I’m old enough to remember how religious extremism crept into our government over decades to produce a righteous and, dare I say, overtly racist attitude among our most powerful politicians. I’ve seen how lies and fear and doubt can mobilize a nation. And I’ve seen how these lies can distract us from the better angels of our nature. And now, I fear, these lies are being used to wage a false controversy over paper ballots while thousands - perhaps millions - of people are robbed of their civic right - and duty - to select the people that represent us.

And I know how to fight these tendencies. It takes patience, persistence and a continuous dedication to truth. And most of all, it takes a mindset that doesn’t get distracted by false controversies.

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