By Brad Friedman on 2/22/2013, 6:05am PT  

With another papal election coming up, one might wonder how the papal elections, since 1059 or so, have managed to remain secure and unchallenged?

As security technologist Bruce Schneier details at CNN, the trick is what we have long referred to here as "Democracy's Gold Standard": publicly hand-counted paper ballots.

Here at The BRAD BLOG we've been calling for the same thing for U.S. elections for some time. Granted, it hasn't been 1000 years, it's just beginning to feel like it. We were even recently immortalized for that effort.

Schneier's breakdown of the voting process at papal enclaves is absolutely fascinating, particularly as the process they've developed over centuries mirrors much of what the process would look like if our nation ditched its secret, oft-failed, easily-manipulated, unoverseeable vote-tallying computers and modeled our tabulation process on the open, public, and very rarely challenged process used by the citizens in some 40% of New Hampshire's towns. It's almost identical, in many ways, to the one used to select new popes.

As Schneier notes, when a new pope is elected, "Every step of the election process is observed by everyone."

"The ballot is entirely paper-based," he explains, "and all ballot counting is done by hand. Votes are secret, but everything else is open"

Talk about your "Holy See"?! It's hand-counted PAPAL ballots!...

"Nine election officials are randomly selected from the cardinals: three 'scrutineers,' who count the votes; three 'revisers,' who verify the results of the scrutineers; and three 'infirmarii,' who collect the votes from those too sick to be in the chapel."

If that sounds remarkably familiar, then you may be one of the few who understand how "Democracy's Gold Standard", publicly-overseen precinct-based hand-counting, actually works. While there are different techniques for it, one that is often used includes counting teams of four, with two people both agreeing on which candidate has been selected by the voter on each ballot ("scrutineers", as they are known at the Vatican) and two others who write down the running count, with both agreeing that it has been recorded correctly (the "revisers").

For papal elections, the entire counting process is transparent and happens immediately after all votes are cast, with all of the assembled Cardinals observing and authenticating the tally in the very same place where votes were cast, inside the Sistine Chapel.

In precinct-based hand-counted elections in the U.S., it all happens just after the close of polls at the very same precinct where the votes were cast, with the public, video-cameras and representatives from all political parties observing and authenticating the tally as accurate. The results are publicly posted at the precinct before ballots are moved anywhere. They can also be verified for accuracy again later if there are any questions.

At the Vatican, the ballots are burned right after the vote to make sure they remain secret to the rest of the world for all time. Though not before everyone who took part in the election had been able to oversee its tabulation. In our case, by law, we do not "burn the ballots" until 22 months after federal elections, and often far sooner after non-federal elections. In any case, burning the ballots immediately after they are tabulated is something we are wise to not model after the cardinals.

Their system, however, is far more secure than the one we use in almost every election jurisdiction in our country. As Schneier notes in his assessment of how difficult it would be to hack a papal election: "The system is entirely manual, making it immune to the sorts of technological attacks that make modern voting systems so risky."

He says that while it's feasible a "scrutineer" could modify a vote, it would not be easy. "The counting is conducted in public, and there are multiple people checking every step."

And that, of course, is the point, and exactly why a similar process used in the U.S. --- albeit adapted for use in a large, modern election with many precincts --- would be very difficult to game, at least without being detected. Contrast the papal system with the computerized systems we use now in the majority of every state. They are easily gamed by a "conspiracy" as small as one person who can modify the computer-tabulated results in any number of ways, in a matter of seconds, with almost no possibility of detection. Those concerns are precisely what we have been documenting and warning about here at The BRAD BLOG for almost 1000 years.

Remember, as Schneier explains, in papal elections "every step of the election process is observed by everyone." That is the key. And neither touch-screen votes, nor paper ballots tallied secretly by optical-scan computers meet that test.

There are a few places where Schneier sees a possibility for chicanery in the papal system, but it would be difficult. And, if used in the U.S., the same chicanery would have to occur at many different precincts without being detected at any of them before it was likely to have an adverse effect on any particular race or ballot initiative.

But while no system is perfect, publicly hand-counted paper ballots remain "Democracy's Gold Standard". When there is a close election and we really, really, really need to know who won, what do we do? We publicly hand-count the ballots.

We've long argued that in every race, we, the people, deserve to know who really, really, really won. And, in this case, the system worked out by the cardinals seem to have served them pretty well for many centuries.

"When an election process is left to develop over the course of a couple of thousand years," Schneier concludes, "you end up with something surprisingly good."

Imagine that. Please don't make us keep at this for another thousand years. Thanks.

[Mitre-tip to Steve Heller.]