Happy “Paper Trails” to You: The Failures and Fallacies of Paper Ballot Voting

Thomas Edison’s very first patent, granted in 1869, was for an electronic vote recorder. Why are we still voting on paper ballots in the 21st century?

In an earlier post entitled “Online Voting vs. Paper: Papier est Passe” , I stated what is obvious to most of us: We live in a virtually paperless society. Almost every basic transactional function in our lives is done online. One glaring exception is the way in which we vote in the United States.

Not only do most of us vote on antiquated paper ballot systems while we do everything else online, the election administration and “election integrity” culture in the United States has no problem with this disparity. In fact, they almost universally insist that the only “trustworthy” way for us to vote is and ALWAYS WILL BE on paper. But here’s the thing: this “paper worship” on the part of those who run and observe our elections is both counterfactual and extremely self-serving on their part.

Opponents of online voting apply completely different standards of necessary “trustworthiness” between digital voting systems and paper ones. They fundamentally oppose online voting on the grounds that it theoretically could be compromised in a way that threatens the credibility of any election result. The key word here is “theoretically”.

Since online voting is working so well in the private sector and in other countries for actual political elections, opponents tend to rely on the world of “what ifs?” to justify their stance against remote voting.

As Dr. Bill Kelleher points out in “How NIST Has Misled Congress and the American People about Internet Voting Insecurity; or, Internet Voting in the USA: History and Prospects” , his just-released brilliant treatment of this subject from a political science perspective, opponents of online voting use “unfalsifiable” arguments to define the standards which digital voting systems must live up to in order to be trustworthy. Of course, such standards are impossible to meet so they claim online voting can never be safe. Period.

Meanwhile, these critics of digital voting apply no such standards regarding the outcome of elections using paper ballots in order to define those tallies as “credible”. On the contrary, they insist that paper ballot voting be used in all circumstances despite the well known horrible track record paper has. Mention Bush V. Gore, butterfly ballots, hanging chads or long lines to these folks and their response is “Oh well, no systems are perfect”. Highly flawed voting systems are fine with them as long as they use paper.

The Verified Voting Foundation, a leading moneymaking propaganda mill for paper voting, recently conducted a “study” of the 50 states with regard to their voting systems and graded each state. The VVF was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars (Perhaps more. One grant alone from the MacArthur Foundation was for $300,000) to look up each state and find out what kind of voting systems they use. They organized their results into “grades”, published and publicized the report. Nice gig if you can get it, I suppose.

Not surprisingly, the grading system the VVF employed was based on how much paper worship a state practices. If a state uses paper ballots, it got a “Good” grade. If it hand recounts those ballots as a matter of course it got a better grade. If it uses electronic voting in any form the state got a worse grade.

Given the long detailed history of ballot confusion along with our most recent example of a 102 year-old voter waiting in line for five hours to vote, you might wonder why there is such emphasis on paper as the “only way to go”. Wonder indeed.

The entire paper-only rationale depends on the concept of the paper trail as a necessary component of voting. Believe it or not, when they say paper trail they mean it quite literally. In every industry today the term paper-trail has come to simply mean “data trail”. If an IT service company needs to find backup versions of information they will search through a data trail of redundant sources. That data trail will be referred to as a paper trail. Rarely if ever are they talking about real paper.

The election administration culture is a unique exception in how it defines the term paper-trail. They strongly mean it literally. Somehow, when it comes to voting, if a transactional record isn’t kept track of on pieces of paper, it isn’t “safe”. It may seem silly, but so far this rationale has been successfully used to keep most Americans voting using antiquated paper ballots.


In a world of acronyms by far the favorite of election admin folks is VVPT, or “Voter Verified Paper Trail”. While their main goal is to perpetuate paper ballot voting in this country indefinitely, publicly their focus is on the states that use digital voting machines at their polling places. They insist there must be a paper record, and imply that the voter will get some kind of “receipt” to verify his or her vote. Hence the “voter verified” part of the term.

The VVPT is a buzzword that has worked very well for opponents of digital voting. Even today legislators working on creating new standards for voting have incorporated the VVPT into the language . But if you take the concept of the VVPT to its logical conclusion, you can easily see how flawed it is.

If a DRE voting machine also produces a paper record for later audit, the votes are still not “voter verified”. And if such a voting machine actually produces a receipt for the voter to take home, what does that accomplish? If a voter returns to the polling place and claims the receipt doesn’t match how he or she voted, what is done then? Is the voter allowed to vote again, or is the vote changed? – OF COURSE NOT.

The most important thing to remember is that in reality the MAJORITY of Americans (The total population of the 22 States that the Verified Voting Foundation gives such a good grade to because they use paper ballots is 165 Million People) live in states that use ACTUAL PAPER BALLOTS for voting. These votes are in no way voter verified. I vote in New York, where optical scan ballots are used. I fill out little ovals on sheets of plain paper and feed them into scanning machines. I do not receive any kind of receipt. I do not know when I feed the paper into the machine if my vote is being properly counted and tallied or if it will be thrown out during a hand recount as “irregular” because of a stray pencil mark.

The entire “voter verified” half of the VVPT argument is a fallacy. Paper ballots do produce actual paper trails, but are they in fact good forms of data trails compared to digital ones? No. Paper is probably the worst possible way to keep track of, verify, recount or secure any kind of data.

In practice the VVPT really means paper ballot voting: an archaic, expensive, and fundamentally flawed system that most Americans are stuck using today. Why do the election admin and “integrity” folks insist that we must always vote this way? As I mentioned, their arguments are self-serving. The “Luddite angle” to our election admin culture will be discussed in my next post. Resistance to change can be a very powerful force.

Lastly, let us not forget that a paper ballot has never increased voter turnout by one single voter. It never has and it never will.

Cyber the Vote!

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