Paper ballots: Views differ

One reason why Harris County will make paper ballots available to anyone who wants them this year is because Beverly Kaufman is afraid we won’t get enough replacement voting machines in time for the election.

In a letter to county elections officials across the state, Kaufman writes that Harris County is in “desperate need of election equipment. Despite a commitment from Hart InterCivic to manufacture and provide eSlate equipment to conduct the upcoming election, there is not sufficient time to produce enough equipment to meet the needs of Harris County.”


The urgent tone of Kaufman’s request for loaner machines from other counties contrasts with her calm assurances to the public. Even as the fire still burned, she asserted that voting will remain as convenient as ever.

The language of the letter to elections officials across the state is meant to communicate a serious situation, not a hopeless one, Kaufman said. “We needed to impress upon people that we need their help,” she said.

You can read the letter here. The situation is “desperate” because there’s no time to delay. If you can’t help us now, you can’t help us, and we really need your help. What fascinated me about this story was the completely divergent views about paper ballots expressed by the local party chairs:

Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill said he understands that Kaufman is operating under challenging conditions, but that the party prefers to use electronic voting as much as possible.

“It prevents fraud at the ballot box,” Woodfill said. “If you revert back to paper, you have a lot of the issues involving voter fraud.”

A hybrid system also would necessitate the re-training of election judges and poll watchers, he said.

The county’s Democratic Party actually recommended a hybrid election day voting system, said Chairman Gerry Birnberg.

Paper ballots are less vulnerable to fraud, Birnberg said.

“In a paper ballot situation, you can always go back and manually recount,” Birnberg said. “How do recount an electronic voting machine?”

I actually agree with Woodfill about the greater potential for fraud with paper ballots. It’s what we see today, as the vast majority of voter fraud investigations, including all of the ones that AG Greg Abbott prosecuted in his million-dollar effort to combat the “epidemic” of voter fraud he believed was happening, involved paper absentee ballots. The irony of all this, of course, is that none of this genuine fraud would have been affected in any way by the voter ID legislation that Woodfill and Abbott and so many other Republicans desperately want to pass, since fraud by voter impersonation is basically unheard of. Woodfill’s concern about the potential for fraud with paper ballots is reasonable, but he and his partymates have never shown any interest in doing something about it, as they prefer instead to try to solve a “problem” that doesn’t exist.

As for Birnberg, the point he’s making is that however many times you count an eSlate machine’s memory stick, you’ll always get the same answer regardless of whether or not the stick is faulty or fraudulent. This is true, but it’s also true that ballots that have been filled out manually may be counted or not depending on an election official’s interpretation of the voter’s intent. The example of certain counties in Florida in 2000, where ballots that had the Democratic box checked for President and the name “Al Gore” written in for the write-in slot were discarded because the voter had selected more than one candidate, will always serve as Exhibit A for this. Even without room for interpretation, if you have a million paper ballots to count by hand, I can just about guarantee you’ll get a different result the second and third and fourth times you count them. Having paper ballots that have been printed by a voting machine, which thus eliminates the “not filled out correctly” problem, and which can serve as a sanity check and an emergency backup in the event there are ever doubts about the integrity of a memory stick, is clearly the best situation, and it’s one I hope the next County Clerk will work towards as we start the process of buying permanent replacements for the lost eSlates.

I myself don’t believe that paper ballots in the context of in-person voting are more or less likely to be susceptible to fraud than voting machine ballots are. The basic procedure for securing them, which largely boils down to “Never let any ballot be in the sole unsupervised possession of a single person”, is the same either way. As long as we can ensure that, I’ll be as confident as I can be about the integrity of the process.

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3 Responses to Paper ballots: Views differ

  1. I assume these will be the same punch card ballots that have been around for some time. With all of the heated contests and issues on the ballot this November I expect a lot of legal challenges and election contest suits, we may have to wait a couple of months to know where the chips fall. Dang, and I nearly got the words “hanging chad” out of my head.

  2. PDiddie says:

    The paper ballots we ( I mean I) will use are the same ballot you would get if you requested a mail-in ballot. You will mark it with a pen or pencil and it will be counted by a machine (sort of like a Scantron, except it’s 8 1/2″ x 17″).

    Dan Wallach has frequently addressed the vulnerabilities of e-Slates, especially how easily compromised they can become. As for Woodfill, his Brylcreme has gone rancid and is affecting his perception.

    Oh, and the people Abbott prosecuted for “voter fraud” (sic) were primarily little old ladies who picked up and delivered nonambulatory seniors’ ballots for them. Horrors. Release the True the Vote hounds.

  3. thanks P, that makes me feel a little better, that’s going to be one big ol paper ballot with all of the judges up for election.

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