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Could Mongolia Teach the U.S. How to Run Elections?

Many Republicans are claiming that the 2020 election was "rigged." Is there any way going forward to prove that an election is not rigged? Maybe look to Mongolia for the answer. Mongolia is an independent country north of China. It is a representative democracy with multiple parties and has free elections.

Elections in Mongolia have an interesting feature: All the marked ballots are scanned to JPEG files and posted to a government website by precinct after the election. This means that anyone who wants to count all the ballots can do it at home. Polls show that 98% of Mongolians have faith in their elections. Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes (D) was gobsmacked when he learned this and is considering if he could do the same thing.

Most voters in the U.S. mark their ballots by pen or pencil and then optically scan them. With changes to the software (and possibly the hardware), scanned images of every ballot could be captured and stored in a database. Every ballot could be preprinted with a random 12-digit number, three of which formed a checksum based on an algorithm parameterized by a key known only to a handful of election workers. In this way, it would be very difficult for any outsider to generate a valid fake ballot because 99.9% of random 12-digit numbers would not be valid.

After the election, all the ballots would be posted on the SoS website. Next to each image would be who the votes were for (in digital form). Voters would be encouraged to copy down their random ballot number, with slips of paper provided in the voting booths for that purpose. After the election, every voter could check to see if his or her ballot was there and if it was scored correctly. The software could allow ballots to be sorted in various ways (e.g., by precinct, county, etc.), filtered in various ways (e.g. only votes for Democrats). Political parties could ask, say, 1,000 supporters to check their ballots and report back if they were there and scored correctly. Pollsters could ask 1,000 random voters to check theirs and report back. Media outlets could send reporters to random precincts to see how many voters checked in and how many ballots appeared online in those precincts. With some attention to detail, it could make it possible to detect any ballot box stuffing or removal of ballots. This would be the moment for some professional statisticians to get their 15 minutes of fame on television.

Later, when some politician claimed that the votes were counted wrong or more people voted in some precinct than there are voters there, these could be debunked easily. A politician could still claim that some of the people who voted were not citizens, but that would not be believable in states with voter-ID laws. No doubt some politicians would think of some bogus claim to make, but the response would generally be: "Go count the ballots yourself. They are all out there." Everybody could do their own recount.

There are some privacy issues here, which is why the ballots would need a 12-digit random number. Additionally, there could be three trays with identical ballots at the check-in station. After a voter was checked in, he or she would be told to pick the top one from any of the trays, to introduce more randomness in the process. This would help against the argument that the random numbers were secretly sequential based on a couple of digits in the middle, so ballot 17 belonged to voter 17.

No doubt there are other issues that might come up, but surely they can be dealt with. For example, if only 10 people voted in some small rural precinct and all were for Republicans, that would out all the voters. Maybe there could be a rule that if every vote in some precinct was for the same candidate, that precinct wouldn't be put online. Or maybe the scanned ballots for very small precincts would be combined to make unanimity unlikely. A company, Clear Ballot, already has software and hardware to do all of this. It even ranks ballots by "sloppiness," so those ballots can be inspected and hand counted. To see why this is an issue, consider these ballots from the 2008 Senate election between Al Franken and Norm Coleman.

Some ballots from the 2008 Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken

You can't remove the human factor from voting. Dominion Voting Systems is now flush with cash as a result of its settlement with Fox News and surely would be interested in building a system and bidding for contracts. If the scheme was adopted by a state, no doubt other companies would spring up as well and there could be competitive bidding for the hardware and software. Fontes is looking closely at the matter, so Arizona could go first, unless the Republican-controlled legislature refuses to play ball. In that case, some blue state where Democrats have the trifecta could go first.

One potential issue is people selling their vote. The problem here is that if Mike sells his vote to John, how does John know that Mike voted as agreed? In this system, Mike could photograph the blank (or filled in) ballot with his smartphone and send John the photo. Then John could look it up later online for verification. On the other hand, in the current system, John could just ask Mike to request an absentee ballot, then give him the blank ballot and signed envelope. Putting the ballots online doesn't make it any worse than it already is, and there is no evidence at all of large-scale vote selling. After all, how would John find customers? Put an ad in the local newspaper or online? That's kind of looking for trouble since buying votes is a crime.

All in all, it seems like an intriguing idea worth exploring. (V)

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