Threading the Needle:
Florida Plan Gives Citizens
Real Paper Ballots
Fear and Loathing in the Voting
“Scoop” Independent News
North Florida. Retired Navy aviator and veteran, Bill Faulkner, MBA, may have done the impossible. He devised a plan to return believable elections to Florida by turning optical scan forms into the ballot of record, to be counted by citizens in public areas where all can view the process taking place. This radical departure from the maze of today’s computerized voting harkens back to over 100 years of U.S elections history. But first, a little background.
We all want to vote and know that our votes are counted properly and that the true winner of any election won fair and square. Since 2000, it’s become virtually impossible to know what happens to our votes if we’re voting on computerized voting machines (touch screens) or on paper ballots totaled by the other computerized voting machine, optical scan readers. Lately we’re hearing terms like paper trails and verified ballots. These are just slightly more sensible than undervotes and overvotes. Casting aside bureaucratic jargon and the explanations of hired gun experts, we know this much.
- When our votes enter a touch screen machine, we have no idea what happens to those votes.
- When we mark a special paper ballot read by a computerized optical scan reader, we have no idea how the readers operate or if they’re operated properly.
- If we ask to watch vote counting, we’ll almost always be told NO or, if allowed, we’re placed in a distant corner like a six year old having a tantrum.
- Finally even if we’re given a pass to watch computerized vote counting, we end up observing a box covering a computer most of us don’t understand, provided by vendors (any of them) that seem to blame any problems with the election process on …. you guessed it … YOU, the citizen, the tax payer.. Comforting isn’t it.
The 200 plus news stories alone concerning 2006 voting problems are just the tip of the iceberg. The Congressional effort to improve our voting system by fixing the problems of Florida 2000 has been about as successful as the effort to balance the budget or reign in the executive branch. But it’s our fault, we have to remember that. After 230 years of our history We the people suddenly forgot how to vote.
Florida still has problems…after all this time
and six billion dollars
The Congressional election in Florida’s 13th district saw heavy turnout. The seat was previously held by Florida’s former elections chief and king maker Katherine Harris. The 2006 race was a grudge match for all the marbles. In most of the district, only 2 to 3% of ballots otherwise marked, had no mark for Congress, about average for Florida. But in Sarasota County, 15%, or 18,000 ballots otherwise marked had no mark for Congress.
The only consistent difference between the areas with the 3% and 15% missing Congressional vote figures was the type of electronic voting machines used. Sarasota had the latest and greatest, touch screens, while the others parts of the district had, for this election, the somewhat more reliable optical scan readers. Makes sense doesn’t it? The touch screens malfunctioned. No other Florida Congressional race had a 15% missing vote rate for the Congressional race.
But in electronic voting world, we are required to ignore the logical explanation. The State of Florida expert panel has spoken. It’s your fault, my fault, our fault! It’s always the voter’s fault! Rather than accept that an overly complex solution to a problem that barely existed has turned into a life draining parasite on the body politic, we’re told that the ballot design was inferior in Sarasota. Citizens simply failed to vote for the most important race in the district. They went to the trouble of getting to the polling place but once there, they forgot why they went. They simply couldn’t find this.
Before poor ballot design was selected as the culprit by the experts empanelled by the state, we heard other causes related to our incompetent voting behavior. Negative campaigning made us not want to vote, but only for Congress. We’re too old, some of us, which made it hard for us to vote for that big race even though we voted for other races on the same ballot. But it is ballot design that caused the problems. We just can’t read or see very well any more, those of us who voted.
The obvious answer, the only answer, the one sure difference between Sarasota and the rest of the district, different voting machines, was dismissed out of hand. Why? If there’s a problem with voting machines throwing out votes that change an election, then someone might ask the next question. Since computers simply do as they’re instructed, who programmed the machines to throw out votes in Sarasota, the strongest part of the district for the loser, Christine Jennings.
We are not only denied simple logic and common sense from these experts entrusted with our elections, we’re never allowed to consider malicious acts like politicians (of either party) cheating. Perish the thought. It’s all just one big coincidence, time after time.
Possibilities for change…
The end of an era in Florida came when Jeb Bush was asked what his future held. He responded, “I’m finished.” The country agreed by voicing an overwhelming sentiment that Jeb not seek the presidency.
Apparently, the new Governor is ready to place some distance too. Even before he took office, Charlie Crist, the former Florida Attorney General, said that touch screen voting machines needed a paper trail. The new governor is a quick study. He then noted the unreliability of touch screens and announced his support to have all Florida voting conducted with voter marked forms counted by optical scan readers.
The special paper forms that the scanners read are not ballots. The computerized record of the paper forms read and stored on the optical scanner are the ballots of record. When a recount is conducted in Florida (and many other states), the marked paper forms are simply fed into the optical scans for another machine count. In Florida, it is actually illegal to hand count the paper forms or use the voter marked forms for recounts.
Florida is not alone. Virginia had an Attorney General race decided by just over 300 votes in 2005. There were hundreds of thousands of well cared for optical scan paper voting forms clearly marked by voters. The court managing the recount refused to allow a hand count of the very best evidence available.
Problems with touch screens have been well documented. Unfortunately, optical scan readers are also a form of computerized voting and subject to hacking, pre programming, and other forms of digital deceit. Touch screens are so insecure that they’re glaring examples of risk and error. Optical scan readers look good by comparison at times but have sufficient risk to make their use an ongoing risk to the believability of election results.
The ingenious compromise…the Faulkner Plan - citizen run elections with real paper ballots, hand counted by citizens.
Bill Faulkner took Charlie Crist at his word when he issued a call for citizen involvement in elections policy. Faulkner has worked on improving elections in Florida since 2000 when he saw much of his hard work, and certainly his vote, disappear into the circus that became the Florida recount. Since that time, he’s been a pioneer in working for verified voting. In fact, he has started one of the first state based election reform groups, Verified Voting Florida.
Through activism, education, and communication with peers, he became clear on the goal of voting. The vote should produce an accurate result reflecting the intent of the people, culminating in the choice of the majority or plurality of voters. Voting should be conducted in a way that (a) assures voter confidence and (b) allows for the most effective means of verifying results when questions arise.
Looking at the history of elections, Faulkner
didn’t hesitate to define the problems as retail
and wholesale fraud. Retail fraud consists of
small numbers of voters, tens to hundreds, gaining false
ID’s to vote multiple times, extra ballots, or other means
of inflating the total of a candidate. The retail version
of election fraud is a serious problem but one confined to a
relatively small number of voters in any election.
“Wholesale” fraud impacts tens of thousands of votes. While it involves human intervention, it requires electronic voting or tabulating machines to achieve the goal, the theft of massive numbers of votes.
Voting on paper ballots or machines that produce paper receipts
This is the heart of the debate on election processes and one key battle ground in the effort to insure a return to true democracy. Right now, the mantra from Congress stresses the need for a paper trail through paper receipts from touch screens. The current reform bills are so complex, few if any citizens, can begin to truly comprehend their intent. The various bills all require computerized voting with both touch screens and optical scanners. Support is offered by a surprisingly diverse array of right and left leaning interest groups.
The solution offered by Bill Faulkner, favored by a growing number of citizens, is much more direct: citizens voting on and counting paper ballots. The nation conducted elections like this for over a century.
Faulkner points out that a “…paper receipt (from a touch screen) is only an alleged facsimile of the way a voter’s ballot was actually cast. But this provides only the illusion of validation.” He notes that it’s not at all difficult to program a touch screens that casts a vote for “X” while giving you a paper receipt indicating that you voted for “Y”. According to Faulkner, the illusory nature of paper receipts and the whole touch screen paper trail is “worse than useless because they provide a false sense of ballot integrity.”
The Solution: Make optical scan forms the actual ballots, i.e., paper ballots, have citizens count them by hand, and use the machines to check the hand count.
Faulkner’s plan incorporates the existing realities of Florida elections and voting systems. Most of the voting districts have Precinct Count Optical Scanners, voting machines that count paper forms hand marked by voters. These paper forms and optical scanners are certified by the Florida Secretary of State.
Two changes in regulation are required. First, the paper forms voters fill out by hand would be designated the ballot of record. This means those ballots would be the official record of votes. Second, Florida law would be changed to allow the hand counting of paper ballots.
Simultaneous a) optical scan counting and hand counting of optical scan ballot with b) the hand counted paper ballots serving as the ballot o record.
Each process checks the other and the entire process serves as both a tabulation of votes and a simultaneous audit, conducted in the open by citizen’s not private concerns
This approach has a number of significant advantages. Combined, these changes return power to the people.
- Citizens control the process: The counting of paper ballots would be conducted by citizens, in full public view, on election night. The volunteers would live in the locality where the race took place and represent a cross section of the population. This was done for over a hundred years with far fewer questions about elections than we have now. It’s feasible and a proven success as our history shows.
- Citizens regain confidence in the process: Instead of a crew of experts from private corporations (the voting machine companies or other vendors) or public officials who disdain inquiries, this approach involves citizens conducting the count that determines the winner.
- Cross checking between hand and machine count: The complaint about hand counts, complaints from those who sell e-voting machines, is that human error occurs when humans count votes. They forget that there is both human error plus a capability for human avarice at play in the handling and programming of voting machines. Our democracy was built on human hand counts and tabulation of voting results. By putting citizens in charge, errors will be caught and corrected on the spot.
- Reduced post election controversy: Close elections or elections with nonsensical outcomes are difficult to recount due to state laws that make recounts difficult and often expensive. When recounts take place, the recounts often lack common sense like Virginia’s refusal to allow examination of optical scan forms in 2005. The simultaneous hand counting and machine checking creates a situation where the necessity of recounts is greatly reduced.
Winners and losers
The big winners with this plan are the people, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Libertarians, Greens, etc. Anyone involved in the political process who wants to fight for their cause on a level playing field would come out ahead with citizen counting of paper ballots in public view.
Voting machine companies like Diebold, ES&S, and Sequoia would soon leave the field. They’d be denied the ever expanding market for increasingly expensive and complex voting machines.
The members of national and state legislatures would lose out because their control over voting would disappear. The citizen count makes the process available to everyone and eliminates the need for experts who stand between those elected and those who elect them speaking a language that only the experts can understand. We the people could actually understand our elections once again.
Elections were conducted with hand counted paper ballots throughout the history of this country. The fact that California was able to count its very long ballots and produce quick results for decades proves the point. Those who say some hand counts take weeks simply don’t understand that the rest of us can read and remember. Canada, Ireland, and England are just three countries that have efficient election systems with citizens voting on paper ballots, hand counted on election eve.
A fair, honest and fully viewed process of voting and vote counting is one of three pillars necessary to continue the improvement of our great experiment in democracy. The other two are the elimination of private money in campaigns, a most obvious form of legal bribery, and the vigorous enforcement of voting rights legislation to allow all citizens to vote without hindrance.
This proposal goes a long way to solve the problems of Florida 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2006. It would be the crowing achievement of the Crist administration and set an example for the rest of the nation.
This proposal would provide a voting system that actually proves that those taking office are actually elected fair and square. Right now, we have no such guarantee.
to reprint with attribution to the author and a link to this
article in “Scoop” Independent