The Paper Trail as Entelechy

Last night, I listened to the BBC World Service’s report on Jimmy Carter’s concerns on voting in Florida. Lyse Doucet, the legendary BBC journo, laid into the Florida official she was interviewing like only she can,

“It seems quite remarkable, then, that Florida’s elections are set to go forward using electronic voting without a verifiable paper trail…after all, in the recent referendum in Venezuela the Carter Center made it quite clear that a paper trail was the one safeguard that positively had to be in place to go forward…”


The Venezuelan referendum has become a byword for “well-run election” in the international media. It’s despiriting, both because it’s clear that Ms. Doucet doesn’t really understand what happened in Venezuela and because it underlines, yet again, how effective CNE was in selling its version of events.

The paper trail has acquired a strange status in Venezuela. On the one hand, it’s presented as the key safeguard vouching for the correctness of the election. On the other hand, we’re not allowed to look at it. Well, not at 99% of it anyway. Apparently, we’re supposed to be reassured by its existence rather than by its content. When we ask to look through it more thoroughly, CNE honcho Jorge Rodriguez accuses us of blackmail!

Paper ballots (papeletas) from 1% of the voting centers were audited on the August 18th cold audit – a cold audit that, as readers will know, has been questioned as un-random. CNE steadfastly refused to open any boxes beyond that 1% – both before and after the initial cold audit.

As mathematicians and physicists studying the referendum results zero in on a subset of tables that appear to show anomalous results, CNE affirms once more that CNE and CNE alone gets to decide which parts of the paper trail get looked at, and repeats that no further boxes will be opened. If we complain and say that that isn’t a very transparent way to run an election, the answer writes itself: “Whaddayamean it wasn’t transparent!? There was even a printed paper trail, that’s how transparent it was!”

Follow me so far?

The paper trail has become a perfect entelechy, a kind of metaphysical imponderable. If a tree falls in the woods but no one is around, does it make a sound? If a voting safeguard is instituted, but no one is allowed to see it, does it actually safeguard anything?

Amidst all the strange comings and goings, the amazing transmogriphying REP, the illegal shifts in people’s assigned voting centers, the last minute voting center personel transfers, the bidirectional communications of the voting machines, the aborted hot-audits, the anomalous exit poll results, the dodgy “randomness” of the cold-audit, the non-binomial distribution of the vote in some states, the Benford Law anomalies, etc. CNE has a soothing retort to any question we could throw at it: “trust us, the vote had to be fair. After all, there was a paper trail…everybody knows that’s the most important safeguard, even Lyse Doucet knows that…”

Join a moderated debate on this post.