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Paper Ballots Helped Secure the 2020 Election — What Will 2022 Look Like?

Progress toward 100 percent paper ballots continues, but there are challenges ahead.

Stacks of paper ballots
Drew Angerer/Getty

Even with unpre­ced­en­ted chal­lenges and historic turnout in 2020, elec­tion offi­cials across the coun­try admin­istered an elec­tion that the federal govern­ment’s cyber­se­cur­ity agency called the “most secure in Amer­ican history.” Many factors led to this result, from close coordin­a­tion and prepar­a­tion between federal, state, and local agen­cies, to the expan­sion of voting options that reduced stress on elec­tion systems. But one of the most signi­fic­ant was the rapid trans­ition in recent years to voting on paper ballots, a trend that is set to continue into the 2022 and 2024 elec­tions.

Experts widely recog­nize paper ballots as one of the most import­ant secur­ity meas­ures that states can adopt. When selec­tions are recor­ded on paper, voters can easily verify that their ballot accur­ately reflects their choices. Paper ballots also facil­it­ate post-elec­tion audits, where elec­tion work­ers can check the paper records against elec­tronic vote totals to confirm that voting machines are work­ing as inten­ded.

For example, by repla­cing paper­less voting machines before the 2020 elec­tion, Geor­gia was able to conduct a hand-count of every ballot cast, confirm­ing the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion outcome and dispelling conspir­acy theor­ies about the state’s voting machines. This would not have been possible in Geor­gia as recently as 2018.

Record numbers of paper ballots in 2020, with more states set to trans­ition to paper

Nation­wide, we estim­ate that 93 percent of all votes cast during the 2020 elec­tion had a paper record, whether filled out by hand or prin­ted by a machine for the voter to review before cast­ing their ballot (based on data from Veri­fied Voting and the Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion’s 2020 Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion and Voting Survey). The increase — up from 82 percent in 2016 — was largely due to states and local juris­dic­tions repla­cing anti­quated paper­less voting machines, often with the help of federal fund­ing. And even where states were not able to replace this equip­ment prior to the 2020 elec­tion, increased mail voting ensured that a higher share of voters were mark­ing their selec­tions on paper ballots.

The trans­ition to paper ballots should continue in upcom­ing elec­tions, as the hand­ful of states that still use paper­less voting machines work to phase out this unse­cure equip­ment. In the past year, Indi­anaKentuckyMissis­sippi, and Texas have all passed laws to require voting systems to produce a paper record of every vote, or moved up the dead­line for doing so. A similar bill recently passed both houses in Tennessee.

Lack of fund­ing and the push for inter­net voting threaten progress

Could anything stop this progress? Perhaps. New Jersey serves as a caution­ary tale — while the state has required paper voting systems for over a decade, inad­equate fund­ing for upgrades has preven­ted counties from imple­ment­ing this require­ment. Already, some counties in states with recent paper­less voting bans are respond­ing by retro­fit­ting outdated equip­ment rather than repla­cing it with modern tech­no­logy, due to the high cost of new machines. These short­cuts raise secur­ity concerns of their own, as older equip­ment is more likely to fail, more diffi­cult to main­tain, and less likely to have the secur­ity features we expect of machines today. The Bren­nan Center and Veri­fied Voting estim­ate that it will cost about $105 million to fully replace all remain­ing paper­less voting machines nation­wide. 

At the same time, there is a move­ment in some corners to get states to adopt or expand risky inter­net voting meth­ods that fail to provide a reli­able paper trail. Lead­ing experts in cyber­se­cur­ity, computer science, and elec­tion infra­struc­ture — along with federal cyber­se­cur­ity offi­cials — continue to warn that inter­net voting presents a “signi­fic­ant secur­ity risk,” and that current tech­no­logy cannot guar­an­tee secure and reli­able online voting.

Acknow­ledging these risks should not dimin­ish the signi­fic­ant barri­ers that voters with disab­il­it­ies and certain milit­ary and over­seas voters face in exer­cising their funda­mental right to vote. But rather than putting the privacy and accur­acy of anyone’s vote in jeop­ardy, states should imple­ment secure and proven processes to accom­mod­ate these voters, includ­ing through improved elec­tronic ballot deliv­ery and conveni­ent ballot return options.

Long term, Congress and federal agen­cies should develop national stand­ards for online voting. It is possible that we can one day develop online systems that are secure, accur­ate and protect voter privacy, but that day has not yet come. The public should have more than vague prom­ises of secur­ity from private vendors look­ing to sell a product for some­thing that is so cent­ral to our demo­cracy and national secur­ity.

In the wake of massive disin­form­a­tion campaigns about “rigged machines,” the supposed need for partisan elec­tion reviews, and other forms of elec­tion denial rhet­oric, it’s more import­ant than ever that voters have confid­ence their votes will be accur­ately coun­ted. Paper ballots provide such assur­ance. 

States must act now to imple­ment secure and resi­li­ent voting systems, and Congress should ensure these states have the resources they need to complete this trans­ition as soon as possible.