For almost 20 years, a number of polling places across the country have purchased and successfully used electronic voting systems, citing auditability, transparency and efficiency as some of these systems’ biggest benefits. But new concerns about vulnerabilities in electronic voting machines have surfaced in states such as Georgia, South Carolina and Pennsylvania, turning election administrators’ and voters’ eyes toward a more low-tech voting method: paper ballots.
From the Hanging Chad and Back Again
Following the notoriously contested 2000 presidential election (remember those “hanging chads?”), the United States transitioned away from paper ballots, and with financial support from the Help America Vote Act, states replaced their lever and punch-card voting machines with Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) systems. In 2018, however, the Senate Intelligence Committee reported that Russian actors surveilled approximately 20 state election systems to decrease voter confidence in the U.S. voting process. The committee concluded that many electronic voting systems are currently outdated and recommended all states either return to paper ballots or mandate that electronic machines produce an auditable paper hard copy.
Georgia in the Spotlight
Ironically, Georgia was the first state in the nation to move to electronic voting machines in the wake of Florida’s punch-card ballots and hanging chad controversy during the 2000 presidential election, and in fact Georgia is currently one of only a handful of states that rely entirely on electronic voting machines without a verifiable paper trail. Now, however, Georgia’s voters are some of the loudest in their demands for paper ballots, and the November mid-term elections were flavored with contentious debates over election security. Some voters claimed the machines switched their votes from one candidate to another in the November 2018 election for governor, and surprisingly low vote count totals in the lieutenant governor’s race were blamed on the voting machines – sparking headlines across the country and prompting a lawsuit.
The Case for Paper
Many election integrity experts believe evidence of vulnerabilities is irrefutable and claim computer technology innovations and increased Internet accessibility worldwide have made electronic voting systems easy targets for hackers. On the heels of so many questions regarding the systems’ security and integrity, almost two dozen states and the District of Columbia have decided to use only paper ballots going forward, with more evaluating the switch.
States Liz Howard, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, “If an electronic voting system is connected to the Internet or has wireless connectivity capability, then it’s easy to understand how and why the voting equipment is vulnerable to hacking…Even machines not connected to the Internet are hackable through compromised memory cards used to set up the voting machine before each specific election or remote access software.”
Compromising the integrity of paper ballots, in contrast, requires significant manual labor, time and effort, reducing the likelihood actors seeking to undermine U.S. elections would be successful. As Phil Keisling, founder of the National Vote at Home Institute points out, “No election system is totally invulnerable to any kind of hacking… [If] you want to steal an election at the ballot level you literally have to commit individual felonies ballot by ballot.”
The Best Defense is a Good Offense
Whether or not electronic voting systems are truly vulnerable and paper ballots are about to make a huge comeback, all voters need to remember that the more people vote, the more likely it is election interference will be detected. The best way to promote election security is to get out and vote (early, not often)!