This op-ed originally appeared in Real Clear Policy on June 4. Since then, problems with ballot marking devices in Georgia’s June 9 primary further demonstrated the need for a switch to hand-marked paper ballots.
The 2020 election season started with clear examples of the folly of our unquestioned faith in technology for voting. As things stand, it may end with the coronavirus fully exposing how wrong-headed election officials were for putting their faith in machines.
Like a lot of political observers, I was dumbfounded by the collapse of results reporting during the Iowa caucus on February 3. That problem was the result of a combination of a coding error in a new app they were using for reporting and insufficient vetting of the system by party officials. Democratic Party officials’ reliance on that technological system undermined voters’ faith that their votes counted and may have cost Iowa its first-in-the-nation caucus status.
That same misplaced infatuation with technology was on display in the California primary a month later. A $280 million attempt to move Los Angeles County to touchscreen voting resulted in hours-long lines, a tenth of early voting sites not opening on time, and some machines not accepting voters’ ballots.
Even worse is when those systems lose votes, such as when a touchscreen system used for early voting in North Carolina lost 4,530 votes in 2004.
To address the touchscreen lost votes problem, many jurisdictions have moved towards ballot-marking devices (BMDs) that do not mark a full ballot but print out a “barcode ballot” somewhat like receipts.
However, BDMs, like all computer systems, are vulnerable to mistaken programming or hacking. In 2016, voters in Clinton Township, just north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, reported that the touchscreen systems there changed their votes from their preferred candidate to that candidate’s opponent. North Carolina and Mississippi voters reported similar problems in 2018 and 2019. While only a handful of voters in those states reported that touchscreen voting machines flipped their votes, there were likely many more voters who had their votes changed without them noticing it.
In theory, voters can examine the BMD printout of their ballots to discover if any of their votes had been changed. However, voters are more likely to be attentive at the point of marking their ballots than they are after the BMD ballots have been printed. An experiment by the University of Michigan found that voters missed over 90 percent of errors on ballots printed by BDMs.
In addition, touchscreen systems put the computer between the voter and the ballot. This makes detecting the source of an incorrect vote more difficult. If a hand-marked paper ballot is incorrectly marked, it is clear that the voter mismarked the ballot. However, if a voter reports an error on a BMD ballot printout, there is no way to tell if the error is due to a hack or malfunction of the BMD system or if it is due to a mistake by the voter. This leaves precinct officials with a choice of either shutting down the BMD machine in question, potentially creating long lines for voters and driving down turnout or continuing to use a machine that may be changing votes without voters’ knowledge.
In short, the paper trails created by BMDs are not reliable and leave election administration vulnerable to a host of problems.
Now, the panic over coronavirus is about to expose another problem with touchscreen voting systems.
The fear generated by the coronavirus pandemic has generated calls for expanded absentee-by-mail voting across the county. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi even tried to require states to use mail ballots as a condition for coronavirus relief.
Mail voting has its own problems. A 2005 report by the bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform, led by former president Jimmy Carter, found that mail voting “raises concerns about privacy, as citizens voting at home may come under pressure to vote for certain candidates, and it increases the risk of fraud.” Despite those problems, there will likely be increased voting by mail across the county.
And when we do, election officials will not be able to use touchscreen voting systems to count mail-in-ballots.
Rather than subject voters to systems that are vulnerable to malfunction, hacking, and potentially high rates of voter error, and which cannot be used for mail-in-ballots, election officials should switch to hand-marked paper ballots before the general election in November.
Andy Jackson, Ph.D. is elections policy analyst at the Civitas Institute.