13

Quite a few countries (notably the USA) use electronic voting machines for casting ballots during elections.

Coming from Germany, where electronic voting machines are not used, I wonder why they are preferred over paper ballots, particularly seeing that there is some doubt about their security (see e.g. Are votes in electronic voting machines always manually counted? and Countries banning electronic voting machines ).

  • The obvious benefit is that the work of counting the ballots is eliminated - however, the benefit seems small to me. I have staffed polling stations myself (in Germany, polling stations are staffed by volunteers), and the main problem is staffing the polling station during the opening hours (8-10 hours). Counting the ballots only takes about an hour, so the amount of (volunteer) labour saved seems negligible.

  • Another benefit would be that there is no need to print and transport paper ballots. However, buying, maintaining, transporting and installing the electronic voting machines is probably a similar amount of work and cost, so again no obvious benefit.

  • Finally, an electronic voting machine produces results immediately, while counting takes time. However, again, the couting probably takes an hour or two, so the delay seems negligible.

So what is the appeal of electronic voting machines over paper ballots?

  • I think you answered your own question. You listed all the seeming benefits, and elaborated on why these are fallacies. I will monitor this question, as I would also be interested in the percieved benefits of electronic voting. In Austria there was a test-run for electronic voting in the elections for the student councils, which was annulled by the Austrian Supreme Court. – Dohn Joe Sep 13 '18 at 11:00
  • I guess the main problem, which is addressed by electronic voting machines is the staffing. For paper-ballot votes you have representatives from all parties to supervise the counting. A machine, on the other hand, is perceived to be neutral. Thus, voting machines may be considered to eliminate, or greatly reduce, the need for supervision. – Dohn Joe Sep 13 '18 at 11:05
  • @DohnJoe: Interesting theory. Do you have some sources indicating why an electronic machine would be less susceptible to tampering? That would make a great answer (hint :-) ). – sleske Sep 13 '18 at 11:10
  • 1
    What I meant by the need for less supervision is the absence of humans counting the ballot. If you trust the machine, you don't need supervision. However, there are plenty examples of tampering with voting machines. This is why I tried to write the comment in an un-convinced tone. I strongly believe that electronic voting machines is less safe, since there is no evidence of the actual vote, i.e. the physically existing paper ballots. – Dohn Joe Sep 13 '18 at 11:28
  • 1
    Note that US ballots tend to have more questions than in other countries. I think 20+ questions is normal because it includes federal elections, state elections, local elections, referenda, and offices that are not directly elected in other countries like judges, police chief, attorney general, school board, etc. Thus the effort of counting ballots may be a lot more in the US than in other countries where voters are only asked one or two questions. – Thomas Nov 6 '18 at 18:47
4

One factor that hasn't been explained is the number of elections happening at the same time. Many European countries (Germany very much included) hold one or two elections per year (with a phased calendar in the case of German local and provincial elections), where people elect one person or one body. In the US, you have literally hundreds of races, elections for the federal parliament (every two years, not four or five), local parliaments, governors, judges, sheriffs, district or state's attorneys, school boards, and things you have never heard of like some local comptrollers together with referendums and citizens' initiatives.

In that context, your guesstimate is way off, the amount of work isn't negligible at all (and in fact many countries find it challenging to find enough volunteers, even for simpler elections than US elections). That's also why the US already used voting machines together with paper ballots long before electronic voting. Clearly that wasn't the only reason for the switch but there is a cost in handling all this purely manually and you shouldn't neglect this difference when comparing countries.

Incidentally, there is one European country holding relatively frequent votes with multiple questions or elections on the ballot (that would be Switzerland). As far as I know, it hasn't introduced voting machines on a large scale but did experiment with Internet voting.

  • Good point, that makes a lot of sense. Thanks for teaching me something :-). – sleske Nov 6 '18 at 20:29
6

In the Presidential election of 2000 (Bush v. Gore), the election was so close that it was decided by less than 600 votes in Florida out of a voting pool of tens of millions.

Enter: the hanging chad. Paper ballots utilized a punch-card system in which the voter stuck a metal instrument through the bubble representing their desired candidate, and the counting machine counted who won based on the number of holes punched.

Florida was so close that it required a by-hand recount. In this environment, subjectivity of vote-counters became a concern, especially in their implementation of whether individual ballot examples could be considered a vote. Sometimes the punched chad was holding on by one side (hanging). Sometimes by two (swinging). Sometimes by three (tri-chad). And sometimes it was indented, but no actual paper was ripped (pregnant). Most counties counted a tri-chad as a vote, but in the recount, the standards varied wildly. Likewise, the decision of which counties in Florida were allowed to recount was another highly-contested thing. It turns out, if they had recounted all Florida counties to the standard they used at the beginning (tri-chad), Gore would have won the election. But because they only ended up accepting Volusia and Broward counties' recount, Bush won.I think many would judge George W. Bush's first term to be quite momentous, so this had a huge impact.

To prevent such subjectivity (or the appearance of such), many states turned to the believed-impartiality of electronic voting. Assisting with that was the voting-machine-sponsored HAVA , which used an equal-rights argument on behalf of disabled people for why every polling place in America should have at least one touch-screen electronic voting machine. After passage, the voting machine companies even sued districts that did not buy a touch-screen machine. So many districts just did away with paper altogether in the interest of having one system for all votes.

  • 3
    But the whole Bush debacle resulted from the usage of voting machines, right? With a traditional paper ballot (without machine counting), this wouldn't have happened. It seems like a bad reason to go to arguably even less reliable electronic voting machines. I'm also not quite sure if touch screens are more accessible than pen & paper (though they may be more accessible than punchcards). In either case, the reference to HAVA seems helpful here, even if it only explains the change from one type of voting machine (punchcard-based) to another (electronic). – tim Sep 13 '18 at 14:03
  • 2
    @tim - No, it resulted from using paper ballots that were designed to be counted by machine. But the same problems apply to an actual physical hand-counted ballot. "Was this stray line in this box intended to be a vote, or just an accidental slip of the pen?" "This box looks erased." "Two boxes are filled in, but one of them seems to have an X over it." "This 'vote-for-three' race has two X's, three scratched out boxes, one fully-filled in box, and one checked box. What were they thinking?" – Bobson Sep 13 '18 at 21:11
  • "It turns out, if they had recounted all Florida counties to the standard they used at the beginning (tri-chad), Gore would have won the election." Citations needed. 1. That that standard was used at the beginning. 2. That recounting all the counties would have led to Gore winning. Example counter-citation: "The recount that Al Gore had requested would have left George Bush the winner of the election". Also, it is unclear to me that Gore would have reacted differently than Bush to 9/11. – Brythan Sep 13 '18 at 22:51
  • 1
    In 2008, in Minnesota, Al Franken and Norm Coleman were the main contenders for a Senate seat, and the vote was extremely close. State law required a recount. While much of the recount went just fine, there were hundreds of questionable ballots, more than enough to change the outcome. Much of the delay in announcing the result was because Coleman (who was behind after the initial recount) kept asking for more and increasingly ambiguous ballots to be counted. – David Thornley Sep 19 '18 at 20:49
  • 1
    @Brythan - if SCOTUS had not intervened, Gore would have won using the prevailing ruling from the Florida Supreme Court (full recount) at the time of the SCOUTUS intervention. The earlier standards, or the ones requested by Gore's team, would have resulted in him losing, is my understanding. Gore did not request a full recount, but tried (incorrectly) to cherry-pick a scenario they felt would be most advantageous. Full recount was the decision by the Florida courts, in the end, so the "full recount Gore wins" and "Gore's request, Gore loses" are not in conflict. – PoloHoleSet Nov 6 '18 at 18:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.