This article was written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, but the paper declined to print it because it might appear to be a conflict of interest for me to write about the voting process of an election in which I was a candidate. I'm not going to argue with my editor, but since the article doesn't have any real relevance to my own campaign, I'm quite happy to post it here and will submit a shorter version as a letter to the editor instead.
Technology Fails our Election Night Test
Barrie pioneered electronic voting in Canada, using touch-screen computers since 1997. People worried about accuracy; some even argued computer voting was invalid or illegal. Over the years objections have faded as more areas adopt some form of computerized ballot. The machines now even print a paper back-up, allowing for manual recount.
Americans have used voting machines for over a century, not because they are more eager to modernize, but due to their wider spectrum elections. On the same day with the same ballot, they mark their choice for president, congress, governor, legislature, mayor, councilor, judge, prosecutor, sheriff, comptroller, etc. at federal, state, and local levels. They also face any number of referenda. With the sheer breadth of categories of votes to be cast and counted, technology was applied very early to speed the process. First lever-machines that counted gear revolutions, then pencil-dot or punch-cards, and finally touch-screens have been common. In the uncertain 2000 election results, all these options suddenly came under scrutiny.
Meanwhile, Canadian provincial and federal elections use pencil on paper, viewed by the human eye and counted by hand. To Americans this may seem quaint, but it’s accurate and surprisingly fast both to vote and to count.
Municipal elections add more complexity as you choose mayor, councilor, and trustee. (Some add deputy mayor, board of control, or regional chair). Yet for a century, pencil voting worked just fine.
The key advantage of Barrie’s electronic system is allowing you to use any poll, instead of being assigned one. Theoretically this raises voter turnout. Yet this benefit is achieved by the online voter list, not the voting machines. We could realize the same benefit with the electronic voting list and paper ballots. The main drawback would be the higher volume of paper ballots to be pre-printed. Counting would also be slower. Or would it?
In this past Barrie election, the speed of vote-counting was an embarrassment. Jurisdictions all around us with paper ballots had reported and gone home while our computerized results trickled in. Candidates went to sleep not knowing if they had been elected; newspapers to press with races too close to call. Even places that had to open mail-in ballot envelopes before sorting and counting were beating us! John Henry won this race and lived to tell of it.
The final insult was this week’s announcement that a trustee result had been reversed upon manual recount. And it wasn’t even a close call – rather, the first- and fourth-place contestants had been switched by computer error!
At this point I wonder if our computer voting system is worth the cost, especially if we have to hand-count them all anyway! Should we return to the tried-and-true pencil on paper?
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.