Paper, Not Plastic

I wrote about the superiority of paper ballots in The Denver Post back in 2000. Unfortunately, the article has disappeared into the aether. Luckily, I kept the text, which I append after the break.

Try it the British way
December 03 2000
Iain Murray
The Denver Post
Lost in the fog of war surrounding Florida’s flawed elections are two important facts: Florida is not the only state where things go wrong – it’s just the only state for a long time where it has mattered.

And whatever happens this time, the legislatures in Florida and every other state owe it to the voters to ensure that such a chain of events can never happen again.

That shouldn’t be difficult. In the United Kingdom, for instance, despite a system of partisan politics just as cutthroat as anything we see over here and a series of close elections, there has been no widespread questioning of election results in modern times. Here are three principles the United Kingdom uses which states would do well to adopt.

All elections must be overseen by independent figures of authority. It creates an obvious conflict of interest to have partisan elected (or appointed) officials responsible for certification of elections at state level or for drawing up canvassing rules and supervising counts at the county level. Counts in the United Kingdom are overseen by a “Returning Officer” (he or she “returns” the result of the election to the body that called it) who is scrupulously neutral.

No recusation is needed, and no screams of partisanship are heard, because the Returning Officer has no ax to grind either way. The potential for fraud is minimized when polling stations and counts are policed by such people.

But who could fill such a role? Britain is lucky in that it has, in its independent civil service, a body of men and women of high caliber who have deliberately abstracted themselves from politics and who form good role models for the sort of official needed. It must surely be possible to find figures in every state who have the intellectual weight and individual authority to command respect from both sides of the political divide.

They will need it, for they are the people who will decide when “enough is enough” in their counts. Trusted Returning Officers would be a vital bulwark against elections being handed over to the courts to decide. Retired military figures and police officers spring to mind as one source of heavyweight figures with experience in professional neutrality.

States should use the simplest voting system possible. Complex voting systems can be unfair and unreliable, as we have seen in Florida. They confuse the less well-educated; they cause problems for the elderly and infirm; and they may well play a part in discouraging people from voting, which many commentators have said is the greatest problem facing our democratic system. Placing a simple, unambiguous mark beside the one candidate (or pair of candidates) of your choice, then placing that paper yourself into a sealed ballot box is the simplest and yet possibly safest method of voting that the individual can face.

Optical-scanning technology can ensure the swift counting of such papers. Rejected or disputed papers can then be examined individually, with strict standards pertaining to declaring such a “spoilt” vote to be actually a vote for a candidate. The insanity of “pregnant chads” being key to an election will be avoided.

No election results should be declared until all the votes are in, have been counted and then (if necessary) recounted. It should not be difficult for absentee voters to get their votes in on time for Election Day. (Presumably many of them get Christmas cards to their relatives on time every year.) Their votes can then be counted with all the others. Once the tallies are given to the Returning Officer, he or she can reveal them privately to the candidates’ agents. If there is a close result, then the agents will retain the right to demand recounts until the Returning Officer is satisfied that the result is correct (a much easier state to reach when the voting system is simple). Then, and only then, should the Returning Officer announce the result to the public – a moment of drama that the TV networks should relish. The Supreme Court has made reference to the solemnity of elections before. It is important that all parties involved – candidate, voters and officials – should realize precisely how solemn the occasion is.

By following these three principles, legislatures could, at a stroke, revivify the electoral process. Simplicity would make it more accessible. Neutrality would make it more trustworthy. And waiting on tenterhooks for a result would make it more exciting for viewers than the flawed process of trying to “call” the result first. The resulting process has worked well for a very long time in Britain. America should try it.

Iain Murray is senior analyst at the Statistical Assessment Service, a Washington D.C.-based, non-profit, non-partisan organization which seeks to defend the integrity of numbers in the public square. Murray has a great deal of experience as an official in elections in Britain.