The power of paper
© Greg Nash

When Chileans went to the polls to elect their first female president, Michele Bachelet, in 2005, I was in Santiago doing research. Excitement about a female candidate was palpable during the first-round election as I spoke with voters at several polling places.

What I remember most clearly, however, was the voting process itself, which seemed to embody the principles of democracy. As the United States struggles with a crisis of confidence in our electoral system, we could learn much from Chile.

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On that historic day, poll workers located voters on the list and gave each multiple paper ballots, one for each office. Behind a curtain, voters marked their choices, then dropped each ballot in a locked, transparent box, clearly marked with the corresponding office. This visibility was protection from malicious tampering.

When voting ended, workers opened the boxes in full view of the public and representatives from each political party. An official removed each ballot from the box, opened it and held it aloft while reading aloud the name of the candidate the voter had selected. Each party kept independent and simultaneous counts.

Disputes about voter intention were immediate and public, with participation by poll workers, parties, and the public. They settled these disputes in the open and logged the results. I found this way of performing democracy particularly compelling. Paper made it possible.

As a professor of computing and a historian of technology, I often think about how older technologies address present-day quandaries.

In many ways, paper is the ideal voting technology. It creates an essential audit trail in the case of a recount. Paper also makes vote tabulations more accessible, participatory, and transparent.

Paper voting is still more common in other countries. Where democracy has been fragile, paper has played an essential role in securing confidence in the vote.

The integrity of the ballot box was crucial in Chile, which had reclaimed democracy only in 1990. Before the 1973 military coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power, Chile had the longest-lived democracy in Latin America. During the 17-year Pinochet dictatorship, thousands of people were executed, disappeared, and tortured.

Pinochet had power but not legitimacy. In 1988, he asked Chileans to vote on extending his rule for another eight years. The people said no, and one year later elected a new president. The will of the people expressed through elections had toppled a dictator.

Technology choices shape our democratic practices. In Chile, paper ballots placed in a clear box offered a physical representation of transparency and reinforced active participation in democracy.

It was clear that Chileans valued such interactions and had designed their electoral process and technology choices accordingly. Can we in the United States say the same about our electronic voting machines?

Here, the integrity of computerized voting machines is once again in doubt. We have not learned from past problems or recent warnings.

In 2000, electronic voting machines in Volusia County, Fla., gave Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreTwo Norwegian lawmakers nominate Trump for Nobel Peace Prize There’s no need to panic about the rising sea level When it comes to Iran, America is still running the show MORE an impossible negative 16,000 votes. In 2006, it took Princeton University researchers one minute to infect a voting machine with malicious software.

Experts including University of Michigan computer scientist J. Alex Halderman contend that a cyberattack could have altered the 2016 election results.

Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who has filed for recounts  in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, has criticized Wisconsin’s use of voting machines that California banned because of security vulnerabilities.

Because of such problems, computer security experts have repeatedly stressed the importance of an auditable paper trail. Yet in 2016, fifteen states still used machines without such a safeguard. The vast majority of voters in Pennsylvania  voted via paperless machine, as did one in four voters nationwide.

Why do we balk at adopting voting technologies that minimize concerns about manipulation and error?

Our much larger population and the complexity of our ballots may make the adoption of the Chilean system, with its many transparent boxes and publicly read votes, an impossibility here.

However, paper ballots, whether read by optical scanners or generated as a backup, can make election oversight easier, protect the integrity of the process, and enliven democracy to better conform with ideals.

Chile’s paper ballots remind us that the election technologies we choose say much about the kind of democracy we value. Our continued use of computerized machines without a paper trail reflect a preference for convenience and speed over transparency, accuracy, and the public’s ability to validate election results.

If we want our voting practices to be a role model for democracy, we must recognize the value of a simple piece of paper.

Eden Medina is Associate Professor of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University, Bloomington.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.