Confusion over Paper Ballots
By Bob Bancroft on 6/22/2007, 4:03pm PT  

Guest blogged by Bob Bancroft

On today's Morning Edition , NPR’s Pam Fessler reports the growing frustration of election officials around the country. Those interviewed express a general consensus that fussing over the right to vote is simply not worth all the headaches. Elaine Ludwig, Chief Clerk of Lebanon County, PA, says she’s “had enough,” threatening that she and many others will quit if any election reform is passed into law.

That’s disturbing.

But there is a more basic problem in NPR’s reporting on the issue: a deep misunderstanding of what is being debated, and why.

Morning Edition host Renée Montagne introduces the segment (about “Toys and Voting Machines,” no kidding) by describing Rep. Rush Holt's H.R.811 as “legislation to require paper ballots for all voting equipment.” Oh, Renée, if only it were so simple! Sadly, that legislation, the bill that guarantees a paper ballot in every state, does not exist.

Rep. Holt told NPR, “States must provide, they owe it to the voters to provide, voting systems that are transparent and reliable and accessible and verifiable.”

Well said, sir. Yet the current incarnation of Rep. Holt’s bill falls short. In place of transparency, we are given mandatory non-disclosure agreements. In place of verifiable voting, we are given paper printouts.

Printouts, Renée, not ballots...

It’s an important distinction. The ballot is the thing that counts. Under H.R.811, that still resides happily as 1’s and 0’s within the machine, impossible for the voter to verify. The printout, the nifty sheet of paper that each machine can spit out, is counted no more than 10% of the time, and sometimes not at all.

A vital challenge before the election integrity movement today is to resolve this distinction, first amongst ourselves, and then for others. NPR’s reporting is certainly not irresponsible, but it does illustrate that we need to do a better job clearly communicating our objectives.

How to improve?

For now, you could start by calling NPR at 202.513.3232 and leaving your feedback for today’s Morning Edition. Let them know that you appreciate their interest in this subject, and that you feel it is important for NPR to be as accurate as possible in its reporting. Explain to them that a paper printout is not analogous to a paper ballot, and direct them to studies like this one [PDF] which demonstrate, beyond any doubt, that the distinction is important and that it is meaningful. Remind them that “activists” do not desire an “outright ban on electronic voting” for its own sake, as Pam Fessler suggests, but instead seek to reaffirm our right of one person, one vote, with every vote counted accurately.

Oh, and, if you're feeling a little sassy on this fine Friday, politely suggest that the public might be better served if we left Doug Lewis’s head in the sand. If it must be allowed out, for air or for some other purpose, perhaps Mr. Lewis of the Election Center could offer us a citation from any reputable source that supports his outrageous assertions.