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The Logistics of Paper Ballots

Concerns and changes to the process of voting in America is nothing new. A paradigm shift came following the 2000 presidential election. Republican George W Bush and Democrat Al Gore were in a tight race, with everything hinging on the battleground state of Florida.

For Janine Parry this didn’t come as a surprise.

As per usual in American public policy, the people who are actually administering elections all over the country—and specifically inside certain states—had been banging a gong for decades over the uneven application of voter access, voter technologies, and ballot accuracy.
Janine Parry, professor of political science at the University of Arkansas

Parry is a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas. All elections are run on the local level—whether it’s for president or school board member—and because of that, Parry said each election commission does what they can afford to do.

“So for a really long time, lots of people had been saying, 'this really seems like something pretty fundamental that we want to standardize at least somewhat.'”

At the time, there were no guidelines on ballot technology or even on ballot formatting. Which meant lots of variation - many ballots used a “fill in the bubble” method. In some counties in Florida, they settled on a punch card system. These methods—among others—led to errors. Remember to look up “hanging chads” on Wikipedia later today.

“The error rate in casting ballots was about 1%, it could be as high as 3% or 4%," said Parry. "It was higher in Florida in the counties that were using paper ballots, and it was lower in Florida in the counties that had already moved to electronic technology.”

A study by MIT and Cal Tech in 2001 found that between 4 and 6 million votes were lost in that election, largely due to outdated voting technology.

The gong-banging was finally too loud to ignore. In 2002, the Help America Vote Act passed at the federal level with strong bipartisan support in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The law, in part, provided federal funding for states to replace the punch card systems and move towards electronic voting systems. And while election administrators and political analysts were overwhelmingly in favor of the updates from the law,

There were some Democrats, who at the time, were suspicious of the technology," said Parry. This was due to the fact that Republicans had control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and the US Senate. "Who was making the machines? Were the machines susceptible to interference? All of those kinds of concerns. But at that time, because we associated the changes with Republicans at the national level, it was actually Democrats in the elections of 2004 and 2006 [who were suspicious.]"

Eventually voters, regardless of party affiliation in Arkansas, came to trust and actually prefer the voting machines. The ones we see most commonly today are called ExpressVote. Jennifer Price is the director of elections in Washington County, and as she points out, “electronic voting machine” is a bit of a misnomer.

“Actually, the ExpressVote is a paper ballot in the sense that it is printed with your choices on it," said Price. "You handle it. We view the ExpressVote equipment as an electronic marking device.”

This distinction is important. The machine that you see when you go to the polling place is just a more sophisticated way to mark your paper ballot.

“The only difference is did you use a pencil or did you use the ExpressVote?”

Regardless of how you mark your paper ballot, you finish the voting process by putting it into a DS200. It’s an electronic ballot box and tally machine.

Act 350 passed earlier this year, which amended the law concerning paper ballots. Previously, there was no guidance on deadlines to submit results or on how they should be reported. The new law allows counties to still prioritize printed paper ballots and reserve electronic voting devices solely for ADA compliance, but that doesn’t mean there are no electronic devices used for the voting process.

“It would still require a county that chose to be hand-filled in paper ballots to still run those through the DS200 to get a tape and for reporting purposes,” said Price.

The presidency of Donald Trump put the conversation around election integrity front and center in American and Arkansas politics. In previous reporting for Ozarks at Large, we reached out to agencies like the Arkansas Secretary of State and the newly formed Election Integrity Unit to discuss recent incidents of voter fraud specifically in Arkansas. No examples of fraud were provided by either of those state agencies.

This disconnect between perceived election fraud and the national rhetoric around election security is the subject of Karen Sebold’s research, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas.

Some people say the nationalization of politics, I say the "presidentialization" of politics. It's even more than about related to national issues, it's about what is the president talking about. What is he communicating in his speeches? His campaign rallies? And how is that translating?
Karen Sebold, professor of political science at the University of Arkansas

Sebold said that the “presidentialization” of voter fraud became more prevalent during the 2020 election with the claims of a stolen election, which caused voters to begin worrying that the stories they saw on cable news could be happening in their polling places. Sebold said suddenly voters were afraid their polling places could be susceptible to tampering.

“That’s when it starts to click [for people.]," said Sebold. "'Oh, you could steal my paper ballot, or you could change my electronic vote. You could easily get rid of that.' There were stories of people votes being changed from Trump to Biden. It's easy to believe something like that, because with technology there's so many things we just don't understand about it. we don't see it, it's not a visual process for us like with paper ballots where we can visualize that moving from our hands to the poll workers to the box that they put it in. So it's really easy to get caught up in this idea that this could be really fraudulent.”

“So it’s fascinating right now, and yet not surprising, that now that the shoes on the other foot, so is the argument," said Parry. "Everybody just switches positions."

Parry said this 180-degree turn for Republicans going from passing laws to bring electronic voting devices to the polling place to now being highly skeptical of those same devices will have an impact on the local level.

"My concern for people in those communities is that we know that the error rate is going to be higher [with paper ballots], which means more people's ballots won't count. And most of the time it doesn't matter because increasingly elections are blowouts except in primary elections. But, there's no doubt that we're going to have some close election and there's going to be a greater percentage of spoiled ballots that will be discarded. So the outcome won't match what people want. And that seems like something we can all agree is not a good in republican democracy.”

Jennifer Price said if a county wants to make the move back to printed paper ballots, one of the major factors to account for is the sheer logistics of printing, producing, and using paper ballots. Counties are subdivided into precincts for elections. Each precinct has a unique ballot. In Searcy County, there are 15 precincts. Washington County has 323. That means having to produce and print 323 different kinds of ballots, just for Washington County. Price said before the predominant use of the electronic voting devices, the looming question was always how many ballots they needed to print.

“Because if you ran out of a ballot style at a polling location, what do you do? That was always one of the pre-election procedures was to look back historically and see how many people in each precinct voted. And then whenever you have a primary election with 3 different ballot styles and trying to predict that, that was always something we definitely had to look at and be concerned about. When I first started, one of the commissioners would call and ask me, 'Have we run out of paper ballots yet?' It was kind of like this cue that we can't run out of paper ballots.”

In Washington County, voters can go to any polling location in the county and vote, regardless of where they live. This format is called voting centers. So, if someone lives in Farmington but works in Fayetteville, they can go to a polling place on their lunch break in Fayetteville and still have access to the ballot that matches their home address. That would be nearly impossible to accomplish with a move to paper ballots.

“If you’re having to send out a certain amount of ballots per site, do you move away from vote centers and then go back to precinct-based voting? How would we predict the amount of ballots that would be needed at that location? Because now we don't have true historical data because we've been doing vote centers. We would have to do a lot more preparation.”

The same is true for early voting.

"In order to open that up, how much of the ballot stock pre-printed do you need at each location?”

Another factor to consider is that printed paper ballots are not marked as uniformly as ExpressVote ballots. Sebold said this means it will take longer to count ballots, which also leads to mistrust in the process.

“The more time we spend counting the votes," said Sebold, "the more time you have the politicians out there saying, 'Hey, something going on. There's something fraudulent happening with these paper ballots.' It's not necessarily going to improve trust in elections when you revert back to paper ballots.”

Price said this is one of the reasons why she's paid a lot of attention to this move back to pre-printed paper ballots.

"I know and I trust the system. We do logic and accuracy testing, and we program our own elections in Washington County. But not ever voter knows everything I know. So, I can understand they are seeing things on the national and local news level, you see things on Facebook. So, what do you trust?"

Price said she always encourages people to reach out to their local election commission if they have questions or concerns. And of course, you can always go watch the election process happen yourself. Janine Parry certainly does.

"Get off the computer and off your phone," said Parry. "Get off your preferred bubble medium and come watch elections actually happen."

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Matthew Moore is senior producer for Ozarks at Large.
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