[This post was written by David Robinson and me, based on our discussions with Alex Halderman, Joe Calandrino, and Ari Feldman.]
On Tuesday, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation released a report on the possible role of paper trails in auditing elections conducted using DRE machines. The report contained a blend of reasonable and unreasonable claims, and careful and uncareful argumentation. A lay reader might come away from the report – entitled Stop the Presses: How Paper Trails Fail to Secure e-Voting – with the belief that the addition of paper trails to DRE voting machines makes them less secure than they are on their own. Such a belief would be incorrect.
As the report puts it at one point, “The addition of paper audit trails to DRE voting machines would simply convert our elections back to a paper ballot system.” The report dwells at remarkable length on the convenient appearance of extra ballots during Lyndon Johnson’s political career. But we know about that cheating today precisely because paper ballots, unlike many DRE vote tallies, can be independently recounted.
One could spend months arguing about what exact position emerges from the 19 pages of delicately drafted hedging that make up the body of this report. But the bottom line – contrary to the impression most readers will gather from the report – is that paper and electronic voting together are, if done right, better than either the best paper system or the best computerized system would be alone.
The ITIF report suggests that a situation in which the paper and electronic records don’t match would be a disaster, since authorities wouldn’t know which record to trust. But that’s a shortsighted view. Divergent paper and electronic records are a sure sign that something has gone awry during voting. In some cases, that sign lets officials make a reasonable judgment about which record is, under the specific circumstances of a given race, more likely to be trustworthy.
The real worst-case scenario isn’t divergent paper and electronic records – with their attendant litigation and political discord. The real worst case is an attack or error that never even comes to the attention of election officials or the public, because there isn’t an independent way of catching problems.