Louisiana’s Voting System Commission weighs paper ballot option

Paper ballots come with different set of problems

By: - January 20, 2022 9:39 am
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Workers with the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office assemble portable voting trailers at the Bourg Community Center in Terrebonne Parish on Nov. 8, 2021, ahead of the Nov. 13 statewide election. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

Louisiana’s Voting System Commission met Wednesday to learn about new certification standards for voting machines, part of its assigned task to upgrade the state’s outdated equipment. A group of residents that has closely followed the commission — while peddling false information about the 2020 presidential election — continued to pressure the commission to reject voting machines in favor of hand-marked paper ballots. 

The commission, which first convened in November, is a 13-member panel of state officials, legislators and citizens tasked with recommending a new voting system. Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell) introduced the legislation that formed the commission last year after a group of angry residents descended on a committee meeting and, citing claims detailed in a YouTube video, repeated Donald Trump’s lie that the election was stolen. 

Hewitt said the legislation was simply an effort to insert transparency into the procurement process for any new machines. 

The new law requires, among other things, that Louisiana use a voting system that creates some kind of paper trail. That could include either a traditional hand-marked paper ballot system in which voters use a pencil to fill in a bubble next to a candidate’s name or a system of electronic machines that produce a paper receipt that voters can verify before casting their ballots. 

The commission heard Wednesday from two members of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission who explained the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines 2.0, a new set of certification standards that ensures voting machines meet updated cybersecurity and usability requirements.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, several speakers urged the commissioners to ignore the federal guidelines.  The law that created the commission requires that “any voting system or system component procured or used in the state” be certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Lenar Whitney, a former one-term state representative from Houma, urged commissioners to remove machines from Louisiana’s elections entirely and instead adopt a hand-marked paper ballot system. 

“We believe that the hand-marked secure paper ballot is the only mechanism to provide a fair and transparent auditable method in guaranteeing that right (to vote),” Whitney said. 

Many of those peddling election conspiracies have rallied around hand-marked paper ballots, claiming they are the most secure system of voting. However, hand-marked paper ballots present their own problems, lawmakers and election officials said. They can be lost, stolen, altered, are prone to mistakes, provide poor access for people with disabilities, and still rely on machines for tabulation.  

Frank Neelis, a Tangipahoa Parish resident who spoke during the public comment portion, asked commissioners to not indulge the same people who repeat unfounded claims and misinformation at every meeting.

“What is disappointing to me is I see a continuation of the same arguments that were brought up during that time,” Neelis said. “You keep saying a lie and keep saying it again and again, and people will begin to believe it.” 

Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Central) pointed out that electronic voting machines might be vulnerable to someone with specialized hardware and advanced computer hacking skills, but hand-marked ballots can be falsified with a No. 2 pencil. 

“Context is essential when comparing voting systems,” Ivey said. “The policy and procedures that underpin any voting technology are as essential to election integrity and security as the voting technology itself.” 

Unlike voting machines, which are equipped with voice-voting capabilities, hand-marked ballots do not provide great access to voters with disabilities. They also must be printed before the day of an election, and each precinct can have its own style of ballot. This can mean hundreds of uniquely designed ballots in a single parish and thousands statewide. 

Nancy Landry, first assistant Secretary of State, said an election in Caddo Parish required 120 different ballot styles. 

Different ballot styles are not problematic for other states where county officials procure and maintain elections equipment. However, Louisiana’s unique top-down system places the Secretary of State in charge of all voting equipment. 

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican who chairs the new commission, has many times defended the integrity and accuracy of the 2020 election in Louisiana. Some members of his own party have cast suspicion on his attempts to purchase new voting machines. 

Ardoin said additional personnel would be required to guard boxes of pre-printed ballots. They are also prone to accidental errors such as “over-voting,” when a voter selects more than one candidate for a single race, and “under-voting,” when a voter mistakenly skips over a race on a ballot. Voting machines, on the other hand, automatically detect these and alert the voter before the ballot is cast. 

There is no specific timeline for the state to acquire the new voting machines, but Hewitt said “the sooner the better.”

“Do we think, and is there evidence or data or studies out there that show that one system or the other kicks more ballots out or makes it more difficult to understand the voter’s intent?” Hewitt said. “I haven’t seen that, but I would love to see it.”

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Much of his journalism has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and coverage of municipal and state government. He has received recognitions including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus and a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his two sons and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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