Re: Hand-marked ballots [OVC-discuss Digest, Vol 28, Issue 30]

From: Hamilton Richards <hrichrds_at_swbell_dot_net>
Date: Sat Feb 17 2007 - 11:44:24 CST

Ms. Tobi's account of voting and vote counting in an idyllic New
Hampshire village paints a very attractive picture. How lovely it
would be if all voters were so idealistic and all election officials
so pure-hearted!

Sad to say, history is full of counterexamples. The same dark forces
that subverted recent elections in Florida and Ohio would be quick to
seize the opportunities presented by personalized ballots. Some
voters would be bribed, and others intimidated, into voting for the
Dark Party's candidates, and their identifiable ballots would be
checked for proof of their cooperation.

According to Doug Jones's excellent tutorial [1], it was outraged
response to widespread fraud in the 1884 elections that led to the
introduction of the secret ballot in the US. To preserve ballots'
anonymity, they are required to be marked according to strict rules;
since departure from the rules could be used to make a ballot
identifiable, ballots with stray marks or nonstandard markings are
supposed to be discarded.
    And now two valuable principles collide. To head off vote buying
and coercion ballots must be anonymous, but every ballot where the
voter's intent is "clear" must be honored. What should we do with an
identifiable ballot whose intent is clear?
    In Ms. Tobi's idyllic village, the choice is obvious. Families
have known one another for generations, and everyone knows their
neighbors would never sell their votes (even if anyone were offering
to buy). Every voter's political beliefs are respected, and there's
no reason for anyone to fear retribution for voting their conscience.
    Unfortunately, such idyllic villages are not exactly common
nowadays, and as the decades-long trend to urbanization proceeds,
they are increasingly rare. In today's urbs and suburbs, we don't
know all of our fellow voters. I've lived in the same house in Austin
for 28 years, but the national average is more like 5 years. When I
go to vote, I seldom recognize more than one or two other voters, and
I hardly ever know the election judges.
    In this situation, it's much less clear how to handle intent-clear
ballots with stray marks or nonstandard markings (for example, check
marks instead of X's). Are the marks innocent, or could they be
intended to make the ballot identifiable to prove cooperation? The
judges must decide. Are the judges' decisions objective and
independent of which candidates the ballot supports? One would hope
so, but the history of Texas politics hardly inspires confidence.
    As far as I know, Austin's elections (which are actually run by
Travis County) are relatively clean (though the adoption of DREs a
few years ago is highly regrettable). Imagine what it would be like
in certain districts in Ohio and Florida, where the officials in
charge of elections have been caught using extraordinary measures to
suppress the votes of some citizens (especially African-Americans).
Would you trust their election judges to evaluate hand-marked ballots

Of the several advantages of ballots printed by machine over those
marked by hand the most important is that the element of corruptible
human judgment is eliminated. The machine ensures not only that all
ballots are strictly anonymous, but also that once a ballot has been
verified by its voter there can be no grounds for declaring it

If the villagers of New Hampshire want to use their ballots to
express their personal commitment to country and community, that's
fine with me. The rest of us, who can't rely on personal
relationships to ensure the integrity of the vote, can cast our
ballots anonymously, and we can find other ways to communicate with
our fellow citizens.

With best wishes,


1. <>

At 9:13 AM -0800 2007/2/16, wrote:
>Message: 2
>Date: Fri, 16 Feb 2007 12:13:05 -0500
>From: "Nancy Tobi" <>
>Subject: Re: [OVC-discuss] Hand-marked ballots [Re: OVC-discuss
> Digest, Vol 28, Issue 26]
>To:, "Open Voting Consortium discussion
> list" <>
> <>
>Content-Type: text/plain; charset="windows-1252"
>I like to think about this in terms of "what instances of life merit our
>personal, human touch"? Where is technology warranted, where is it not.
>For instance, I would not want a marriage contract marker. Or a bank loan
>Similarly, I would not want a machine to mark my American ballot, which is
>my signature of commitment to my American Republic and the community in
>which I live.
>I would want to know that my hand marked commitment is read, discerned, and
>understood by my fellow countrymen/women, who in their reading of my intent,
>signify their commitment back to me.
>Those of you who have never participated in a hand count election should
>view our videos online, or better, come to NH for one of our statewide
>We know, from reading our neighbor's ballots, that sometimes their political
>expression is so intensely personal that they choose to mark their ballot in
>their own unique manner, which may not be welcomed by a machine reader, but
>which is certainly understood by their human neighbors determining their
>voter intent.
>I don't believe that, with something as personal and precious as our vote
>for freedom and liberty, we should be restricting our expression to that
>permitted by a computer.

Hamilton Richards, PhD           Department of Computer Sciences
Senior Lecturer (retired)        The University of Texas at Austin      
OVC-discuss mailing list
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Received on Wed Feb 28 23:17:20 2007

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