Paper ballots: the easy solution for unreliable elections

Most of the world currently uses some form of paper ballot as their primary voting system. Paper ballot systems have a number of advantages. Since paper ballots are relatively easy to mark secretly and track if the right protocols are in place, they generally satisfy requirements for both transparency and secrecy.

Paper ballots can, however, run afoul of a number of problems with regards to cost, integrity and accessibility.

Paper Ballot Cost Issues

There are substantial expenses that make traditional paper ballots voting a costly endeavor for governments, and ultimately their citizens.

Paper and Materials

Sealing envelopes and transporting election materials alone accounted for 40% of the cost of the 2012 French presidential and legislative elections. From ballot papers and information leaflets to electoral cards, each item must be printed and routed physically to voters or polling stations. These costs are further increased in the case of legislative elections, where there are more candidates requiring more materials to be produced. Colombia, for example, had to print 102 million ballot papers during its 2014 parliamentary elections, even though the country only had 32 million voters. This reliance on costly materials discourages administrations from considering alternative electoral procedures, such as proportional voting, which would require even more printed materials and create additional costs. The structure of an entire electoral system can be determined strictly by financial constraints.

Polling Stations

Establishing a network of polling stations across an entire nation can be both complex and exorbitantly expensive. Voting administrators must first find suitable locations within the community, which must be purchased or leased if they are not public property. These stations must then be furnished with equipment, including voting booths, ballot boxes and other administrative machinery. Voting equipment itself can be quite pricey too. For example, the optical analysis machine deployed at each central counting office in the United States runs between US$70,000 and $100,000.


From personnel manning polling stations to those in charge of mailing and registering voters, election administrators must hire and train many employees to assist them. The labor costs associated with administering an election are high and not reduced by economies of scale. In the 2017 UK general election, £22 million (15%) of the £140 million election budget was spent on employee engagement and training.

Voting administrators must also ensure the protection of voters, particularly those who are exposed to potential security threats triggered by extreme partisanship. In Kenya, where the incidence of election-related violence is high, approximately 600 people were reportedly killed following disputes over the results of its 2007 presidential elections. In 2017, election-related violence remained the primary source of concern for a majority of Kenyans. This issue also translated into substantial costs for the Kenyan government, who were forced to dedicate upwards of US$53 million for security alone in its 2017 general election.

Paper Ballot Integrity Issues

Corruption Vulnerabilities

For any election system that is centrally governed, the integrity of the system depends directly on the trustworthiness of its administrators, who often have a vested interest in the election results. Multi-party democratic elections have become standard globally, but up to sixty regimes can be classified as “electoral authoritarians” — places where elections are held to stave off international and domestic criticism but whose results are manipulated by the ruling faction.

Vulnerabilities exist throughout the voting process from start to end. The quantity, location and security of polling stations provide a ready handle to manipulate results, which can be used as a deterrent for voters who wish to avoid all-day lines or risks to their physical safety. Paper ballots can be directly manipulated too. In Nigeria’s 2003 election, ballot boxes were stuffed in full view of independent observers. In Egypt’s 2005 presidential election, entire ballot boxes were discarded en route to the counting facility. Even if all of the ballots counted were produced by legitimate voters, methods further down the election process can alter outcomes too. Since tabulators have discretion over which votes to validate or invalidate when a ballot has an irregularity, corrupt officials can skew results by only invalidating only the ballots of the opposition.

Human Error Vulnerabilities

Fraud and corruption are not the only way in which paper ballots can stumble; they are also vulnerable to human error. Ballots can be lost or misrecorded by accident. Physical errors on a ballot may force tabulators to guess the intentions of the voter or discard the vote altogether. Physical counting processes, which can be completed by machine or by hand, are often inaccurate. In an experimental audit, researchers revealed that different groups of auditors reach different tallies close to 40% of the time, and that the average error percentage for any given candidates count was 1.4%, enough to swing any close election.

Paper Ballot Accessibility Issues

Impact of Locations

Paper ballots demand the selection of polling locations throughout a country in order to guarantee privacy and integrity. Depending on how many stations are established and where, travel can be a barrier to voter participation. Some rural voters live hours away from their nearest polling station, and even in major cities, visiting a station often takes substantial time. Furthermore, minor changes in the location of polling stations can have a meaningful impact on overall turnout and can be used to sway who decides to participate in an election.

Traveling to the polling site is only half the battle. Once the voter arrives, waiting times can also be high enough to discourage voters. In a recent US election, some voters experienced a wait time of six to seven hours.

Voters with Disabilities

Some segments of the population are particularly vulnerable to being excluded from current electoral system. Voters with disabilities, such as those with impaired vision, are the most affected by systems that require them to physically travel to polling stations. These stations are often not equipped to receive them and can fail to provide ballots that cater to their needs. While alternatives such as voting by mail or proxy voting exist in some countries, they are not a widespread option globally.

Paper Ballot Inefficiency Issues

It can take substantial time and resources to administer an election using current voting systems. These efficiencies are largely due to logistical issues in deploying physical election resources, excessively long tally processes and more. The 2014 India parliamentary elections are one of the most striking recent examples of the difficulties inherent in deploying a network of physical polling stations. Due to the country’s immense geographical size, its elections were divided into nine rounds spread out over an entire month, as security forces needed time to move from one area of ​​the country to another.

The tallying of ballots can also generate inefficiencies and long delays. Constrained by unwieldy counting procedures and a slow manual recount, the final results of Ukraine’s 2014 parliamentary election were not available until 15 days after the election took place.

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