Getting an Accurate Vote: Paper Ballots or Voting Machines?

Memphis, TN – For years, the United States relied on a paper trail for determining who won an election. Over time, concerns about voter fraud and the time involved in getting an accurate vote tally caused elections to become machine dependent.

Now, concerned citizens want their paper ballots back. An organization called We the People is answering those concerns and has filed suit against every state in the U.S..

Bob Schultz, founder of We the People, is a plaintiff in the National Clean Election lawsuit. Schultz says the purpose of the suit is to prohibit the use of all types of vote counting machines, and require hand-counting of all primary and general election ballots in full view of the public.

We're entering an era where votes are going to counted more and more by machines. Which means votes are being counted in secret, Schultz said.

The case only has jurisdiction in New York. Schultz says the New York State Attorney General filed for a dismissal. The judge denied the claim and stated the case has merit. The case is currently in process.

In Tennessee, voter rights advocates are concerned that some Tennessee voters may not even be able to cast their ballots.

In the state of Tennessee, if voters have registered using only the last four digits of their Social Security number, they need to be aware that the Shelby County Election Commission is going to be unable to process those forms until they do have the full nine [digits] of the Social Security number," said Jacob Flowers, who heads the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center in Memphis.

"We have learned that voters that turned in their forms before the deadline on October 6th, whether they had full Social Security numbers or not, have until five days before the November 4th elections to call the election commission and present them with their full social so that they can be fully registered, Flowers said.

Flowers says that because of identity theft concerns, voters are afraid to give out their full Social Security numbers on the voter registration application.

In January 2008, the state reported two laptop computers stolen from the Metro Office Building in Nashville, which held the Social Security numbers of approximately 337,000 Nashville voters. The data was not encrypted.

We know that it is possible to accurately register people with only the last four digits of their Social Security number. Unfortunately, Mr. Thompson does not want to see it that way. Unfortunately, Mr. Thompson is unwilling to do at this time, Flowers said of the Tennessee State Coordinator of Elections Brook Thompson.

Thompson claims the statute requiring all nine digits be present on the voter registration form has been the law since 1971.

We can't just change a statute because we don't like the way it is being implemented. The law requires what it requires and we are implementing that law, as I said we have for a long time. If they want the statute changed they need to talk to the legislature about that, Thompson said.

Nowhere on the voter registration form does it say that the full nine digits of the Social Security number are required. The line for the Social Security number reads, Social Security number, if any.

Brian Stephens, a Memphis attorney, says the Help Americans Vote Act should be considered by the state of Tennessee in upholding the current statute.

The real issue here is not whether or not times have changed. There is actually a federal law that has come down that has changed those times, that has said that the states are not allowed to infringe on a person's right to register to vote or to vote," Stephens said.

"Arkansas [and] Mississippi have changed their laws, where they only require a driver's license number or the last four digits of a Social Security number. I think those are probably more appropriate. The state of Florida has upheld that law. I think the current law that we have on the books should be preempted. I wish someone would have thought about this 18 months ago. Stephens added.

The state of Tennessee has made some changes to improve voter confidence, but the changes won't be in place until 2010. The Tennessee Voter Confidence Act was passed in May of 2008. The act requires all counties to switch to optical scan machines, which takes an optical scan of the original paper ballot. Currently only two counties have those machines, Hamilton and Pickett counties.

Bob Schultz of "We the People" believes that ideally there should be enough volunteers to take the time needed to count paper ballots for as long as it takes, even without pay.

Most Tennessee counties currently have touch-screen voting machines, which are made by the same company, Diebold, that produces the optical scan device.