November, 2016

Many long time activists in election integrity support scrapping our electronic voting systems, and reverting to 100% hand counted paper ballots (HCPB). Any other proposed reform is met with a sense that supporting it would be selling out because it does not specifically advocate for the end of electronic voting technology.

We completely understand the perspective behind that sentiment, which generally comes from a direct experience with faulty and/or corrupt computerized elections.

For that reason, we are writing this letter to all who want to work for 100% HCPB, and who find themselves frustrated and unsure how to move forward.

First we want to say, as the founders of the NEDC, that we have a long history working on election integrity and clean elections. We come to this struggle with both a passion for honest democracy, and an awareness of how to achieve political reform.

We believe that it serves our interest as democracy advocates to understand the political landscape and work strategically, so that we can make serious headway in protecting the elections of 2018 and 2020, and those beyond.

Here is the current political terrain:

  • There is no significant political support in Congress or state legislatures or the media or the political parties for scrapping all our voting technology and reverting to HCPB only. 
  • There are no state elections administrators who are promoting reverting to HCPB only.
  • Those who might advocate such an action realize there currently isn’t enough broad support to make it a reality.
  • The Federal government has limits on what it can mandate with regard to elections, which are controlled by the states.
  • The battle for counting every ballot in public will therefore take place in each state.
  • There is currently not enough grassroots organizing in place in each state to achieve anything like 100% HCPB in time for 2018 and probably not for 2020.
  • Even within the election reform community, there is no consensus on the issue of reverting to 100% HCPB, and not everyone supports that as the final goal.
  • Due to all of the above, no significant progress has been made in securing our elections to date. 

We are only now reaching a critical mass where the public and legislators are becoming aware of the problem with our voting technology. Elections officials are still mostly in public denial about the problem. We do not have strong, national grassroots coalition support among major organizations for election reform yet. Election integrity still takes a backseat to many other pressing causes. 

So, though we are making a lot of progress, we have to assess where we are on this path and how to achieve a goal of verified elections. Advocating passionately for something we can’t achieve might feel righteous, but it won’t result in reform if we can’t get there from here. 

There are, however, paths toward full transparency. 

The Federal government can provide support for state election officials that also safeguard elections, including:

  • Requiring durable, voter marked paper ballots as the ballot of record.
  • Ending the use of paperless voting systems.
  • Supporting transparent open source software over privately owned and controlled proprietary systems.
  • Requiring robust audits of all Federal races, which would provide the foundation for state and local audits. 

The Federal government only has jurisdiction over Federal elections, and therefore can only mandate audits for those races. However, most other state and local elections take place at the same time as Federal elections so the oversight will likely also cover those races, and the infrastructure and mandate for hand-counting will have been established. 

Such mandates toward transparency and public oversight would absolutely go a long way toward protecting elections. The battle then takes place at the state level, where the laws govern how the ballots will be handled and counted.

The Federal government could also support basic principles of election integrity that would require the states to act accordingly to carry out observable public elections.

The work at the state level can begin immediately, using educational, legal and legislative tools to achieve reform.

For those - particularly those new to this issue - who want to do this state level work, but advocate 100% HCPB only, please consider the following:

  • Taking a “100% HCPB only” hard-line approach (everyone else is a "sell-out") will not allow you to build dialogue and coalition support with people who can advance the cause. 
  • Rebuilding a culture of hand-counting will take time, resources, and training. Robust audits can be a step on that path. Engaging citizens in overseeing and taking part in audits and recounts is a beginning. 
  • Forcing local jurisdictions to toss away expensive voting equipment and immediately hand-count ballots only could backfire, both politically and practically.
  • Without proper resources and training, the HCPB vote counting could be a mess. Additionally, some people might purposefully derail the hand count in order to “prove” that it doesn’t work, or is not efficient.
  • In some states like California, there is practically no hope of winning this battle for 100% HCPB - at least, not now. The ballots are too long and complex and the urban areas too large; the move is toward consolidation of voting centers, not smaller and more numerous precincts that would make hand counting easier. A complete overhaul of the elections process would be necessary. 

In other words, we can’t just charge the Bastille and burn the voting machines and assume all is going to work out. We have neglected to notice the outsourcing and privatization of our elections systems for decades and now the problem is quite entrenched. So the question is, how do we extricate ourselves from this quagmire, with the help of every possible stake-holder, including organizations, the political parties, and elections officials themselves?

Achieving full 100% HCPB, if it ever happens, is a long way down the road. Many forces are arrayed against that reform. Additionally many people - including prominent cyber security experts - simply don't think it's necessary, and they support a combination of open-source software and robust audits that, to them, would be sufficient if not actually preferable to HCPB only. There are many hearts and minds that need to be changed to reach a consensus on HCPB, and that takes real work. Not supporting any organizing and reform that can lead us down that road doesn't make strategic sense. 

Here are some suggestions for making headway with HCPB reform:

  • Contact your local elections officials and open a dialogue with them about HCPB. Are they open to counting every ballot by hand - if not, why?
  • Find out what your local and state election law has to say about HCPB. It’s possible some good laws are already on the books that aren’t being adhered to, and also possible some bad laws are ready to be specifically countered (such as hand counting being illegal, or only an option after the election is certified)
  • Form a local election integrity group and begin the education and dialogue on hand counting. 
  • Train your group in overseeing audits and recounts.
  • Sign everyone up as a poll worker. Show up and get involved at the local level - learn what's working and what isn't, and who you can trust.
  • Do public demonstrations of hand-counting to show it is possible, fun, and empowering. Have hand-counting parties. Video them, and put them online.
  • Write a proposal to transition from your local system to 100% HCPB with a clear cost analysis and understanding of the time frame for achieving final election results on election night. (You will find this is not so easy).
  • Develop legislation, ballot initiatives, or other reforms that makes sense for your community or state to move toward greater transparency, with the goal of eventually being able to count every ballot publicly. Remember that in some DRE states, just securing an actual paper ballot would be a huge victory.
  • Be willing to compromise at times if it helps you build coalition support and still furthers your goals. 
  • Be clear that your goal is to work toward 100% HCPB, and continue to educate on why you believe this is necessary.

Another consideration is that the issue of election reform should not be partisan. This is a challenge, however, because a partisan approach is an easy way to get support - particularly if your party thinks they have been cheated in an election. If you begin your work only doing partisan outreach, you'll find you don't have the bi-partisan support you need to get any reform passed. 

If you are seriously interested in working for HCPB in your area, please contact us at:

Thank you,

NEDC co-founders Ben Ptashnik and Victoria Collier