On November 19, the people of Argentina cast over 25 million paper ballots in 10 hours for the country’s runoff presidential election. After counting those ballots by hand, the results were available that same night showing that Argentinians elected Javier Milei as their new president.

The election of the world’s first avowed libertarian head of state is an interesting development alone, but as our own 2024 election approaches, Argentina’s efficient, secure, and fast use of hand-counted paper ballots deserves attention.

Such a smooth election using such a “primitive” system stands in stark contrast to the 2020 United States presidential election, the shadow of which still looms large. After all, how can 25 million ballots be counted by hand in one night when it took many American jurisdictions several days to count far less in 2020 using machine tabulation? What led to this disparity?

Many Americans continue to have these questions. An August CNN poll indicated that almost 70% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe that the 2020 election was illegitimate. Two ongoing lawsuits against Donald Trump allege that he committed election interference. Since Trump is the overwhelming favorite to be the Republican nominee, the integrity of the 2020 election, and the necessity of election integrity for 2024, will undoubtedly be a recurring topic.

For some, the federal government’s declaration through its cybersecurity agencies that 2020 was the “most secure election in American history” is more than enough to close the book (and throw it at Trump). Yet the federal agencies based their conclusion on a finding that “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” The agency also noted that the states with close results all have “paper records” of each vote that can be recounted if necessary.

In fact, upwards of 93% of votes cast in 2020 have a “paper record.” This means that voters cast their vote on either paper that was then machine tabulated, like we have here in Alabama, or on a machine that provided a paper copy of the vote.

If the machines themselves are secure, and there’s a paper record of each vote, that would seem just as secure as hand-counted paper ballots, if not more so. The fact that the two seem so similar makes the difference between Argentina’s hand count of 25 million ballots in one evening and various swing state districts’ days-long counts for far fewer ballots in 2020 seem that much more curious.

Paper trail v. paper record

What exactly is the difference between hand-counted paper ballots and machine-counted ballots that provide a “paper record?” In brief, the paper trail, e.g., the chain of custody.

Argentina has about as clear of a paper trail from voter to ballot box for their votes as possible. Voting is compulsory for all citizens between the ages of 18 and 70. All citizens are automatically registered to vote in the national electoral roll, and that roll is updated bi-annually. To vote, citizens must present a valid nationally issued photo ID in person to receive a paper ballot, which they then place into sealed boxes. Absentee voting is only available to those outside the country.

In America, the states independently conduct elections, so the paper trails can vary widely. And for the 2020 election, many states radically expanded the chain of custody for ballots due to COVID-19.

Five states (California, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, and Vermont) automatically sent absentee ballots to every person listed in their voter rolls.

Thirteen states (Arizona, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) automatically sent absentee ballot applications to every person listed in their voter rolls.

Over twenty other states either expanded absentee eligibility, expanded deadlines or made other changes to their absentee procedures. Five other states already had almost full vote-by-mail elections by 2020.

In all, over 65.6 million of the 155 million votes in 2020 were mail-in votes.

Assuming every person who receives a ballot in the mail is an eligible voter, these procedures could be reasonably secure if there is identity verification, and if each voter directly delivers their ballot.

However, in 2020 there were wide discrepancies in how mail-in ballots were verified and delivered. Eighteen states required only that a voter signature be present on the ballot to be valid. Twenty-eight states required the signature to undergo a matching process with signatures on file. The rest of the states required either witness or notary signatures, a photo ID, or some combination thereof (Alabama required photo ID and a witness or notary signature). In 26 states, someone other than the voter could collect and deliver their ballot on their behalf in a process called ballot harvesting. Many states utilized public drop boxes where ballot harvesters could literally stuff the ballot box.

So, the 93% “paper record” of votes in 2020 includes all mail-in votes that eventually made it to the polling place and were fed through the counting machines. In other words, this data point only means that there is a corresponding paper ballot, whether a valid and lawful vote or not, to each vote in the data. It tells us nothing about the chain of custody of the ballots and whether the ballots counted were lawful.

Since 2020, over half of the states have passed legislation that will be in effect for 2024, some strengthening election integrity and some making even further expansions of mail-in voting and ballot harvesting. Considering the 2020 presidential election was determined by less than two percentage points in each of the major swing states, these new laws have the potential to make a considerable difference in 2024. Hopefully that difference restores some vital trust in our electoral process.

Talmadge Butts is Lead Staff Attorney for the Foundation for Moral Law (www.morallaw.org). Those with constitutional concerns may call the Foundation at (334) 262-1245 or email [email protected].

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected]

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