September 22, 2020

Voting: Is Low-Tech the Way to Go?

Karl-Friedrich Lenz, in reply to my previous e-voting posting, sings the praises of old-fashioned paper ballots, citing a Glenn Reynolds column.

I agree with Lenz and Reynolds about the virtues of simple paper ballots that ask the voter to draw an X in the box next to their candidate’s name. Paper ballots are easy for the voter to understand, hard to forge in quantity, and easy to re-count if there are doubts about the result. Their security relies on procedures that any poll worker can understand. In short, they are more secure than many of the voting systems we use here in the U.S.

I disagree with Lenz and Reynolds, though, when they say that low-tech paper ballots are our best option. My favorite approach is a hybrid one in which voters use computerized displays to make their selections, and the machine then prints out a paper ballot that the voter verifies and drops into a traditional ballot box.

Such a system has several potential advantages over a paper-only system. First, a computerized system can greatly reduce the number of improperly cast ballots; for example, it can prevent the voter from mistakenly marking two candidates for the same office. Second, the computer can write cryptographically generated bar codes onto each ballot when it is printed, thereby making it much harder to stuff the ballot box with forged ballots later. Third, if desired the computers can provide a quick but unofficial estimate of the vote immediately when the polls close.

Lots of good security engineering is needed to make these advantages real. Used wisely and in moderation, technology can help to make voting processes more accurate and more secure.