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Paper Trails for All

Thanks to Russia, voting machines may be more secure than ever in 2020.

November 13, 2018

Cross-posted from Slate.

Even for the most jaded among us, the viral videos of voters waiting in line for hours to exercise one of the most fundamental democratic rights are confounding and depressing. Worst of all, we’ve seen it all before: the machines that don’t turn on in the morningdon’t record the right votesthat flip voters’ selections.

Age, of course, is a major reason for these failures. As machines age, essential parts like memory cards and touch screens fail. Finding replacement parts gets more difficult. And some of the machines used on Tuesday were really old: 41 states used voting machines that were at least a decade old, and officials in more than 30 of these states have told us at the Brennan Center that they need to replace them before 2020.

Election officials have been sounding the alarm about the “impending crisis” of aging equipment since at least 2014. Among the very oldest of our antiquated systems are the paperless direct-record electronic, or DRE, voting machines. It’s probably no coincidence some of the most publicized machine problems this year happened in states that use them — states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas. In Georgia, voters waited for hours to vote as the state’s paperless DREs failed, reducing the amount of functioning voting machines. In Pennsylvania, 18 precincts in Philadelphia reported broken voting machines, and polling places in several counties reported calibration problems with their machines. In South Carolina, voters couldn’t select the candidate of their choice because some of their touch screens were not properly calibrated. In Texas, voters experienced frustration and concern when their selections for a straight-party ticket showed the wrong Senate candidate (with Democratic voters seeing Ted Cruz’s name and Republicans Beto O’Rourke’s) due to design flaws in the voting machines.

There is no evidence that this equipment was hacked or tampered with, and there’s every reason to believe the failures we saw on Election Day were related to age. Still, it’s worth noting that there is near-universal agreement among experts that these machines are among the least secure in the country, because if they are tampered with, there is no record independent of the software (e.g., a paper ballot) that can be used to check the results.

And yet, since that 2014 warning about an impending crisis, only three out of 16 states have replaced the most vulnerable paperless machines. A cynic might say that this problem isn’t going to get better as we approach the general election in 2020. But don’t give in to that impulse quite yet. Our voting-machine situation just might be improving — and we have the Russians to thank.

Since Russia’s attack on our election infrastructure in 2016, there has been increasing pressure on the 13 states that still use old paperless DREs to replace them. Both the Senate and House intelligence committees, as part of their reports on Russian interference in the 2016 election, have recommended that all voting machines in the United States have paper backups that can be used to check software totals. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen has called for “verifiable and auditable” voting systems throughout the country before 2020. And in the spring, the National Academy of Sciences stated that voting machines that do not have paper backups “should be removed from service as soon as possible.”

All of these warnings seem to be having an impact. Several states, including Arkansas, Delaware, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, have said they will replace their paperless equipment with systems that produce paper backups before 2020. In Georgia, a federal judge presiding over a lawsuit to replace that state’s paperless equipment has made clear she may order their replacement if the state doesn’t act to do so itself soon. And New Jersey has passed a law requiring a paper backup for all votes, though counties are not required to replace their equipment until the state comes up with the money.

If each of these states replaces their old paperless machines by 2020, we would cut their use nationwide by more than half. Whereas this month, more than 40 million registered voters lived in jurisdictions with paperless computerized machines, this replacement would reduce it to fewer than 20 million. Put another way, if these states replace their equipment before 2020, fewer than 10 percent of Americans would vote on old paperless systems (compared with more than 20 percent today). Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas would be the only remaining states using paperless equipment in some polling places.

Of course, the fact that states have promised to, or seem primed to, replace equipment does not mean they will. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, in particular, funding hasn’t been secured yet. And even if all these states replace their equipment, 10 percent of Americans still voting on antiquated, insecure systems is far too many.

Ultimately, Congress may have to come up with the money if it wants to ensure that we are not using paperless equipment in the next presidential election. The amount of money needed is quite small considering the stakes. In March, Congress provided $380 million for states to upgrade their voting infrastructure. A similar amount in 2019, directed to the 13 states using paperless equipment, would probably be enough to ensure we finally get rid of these dinosaurs.

But time is already running short. The New Hampshire presidential primary is scheduled for Feb. 11, 2020. Election administrators have very little time if they want to have new systems in place before then. 2019 is the year that we must demand all paperless voting machines be replaced with paper-based systems that can be properly audited. It is an essential component of securing our elections against foreign interference and reducing the kind of glitches and malfunctions that led to frustratingly long lines again this year. And hopefully this is the sort of thing that a Democratic-led House and Republican-led Senate could agree on. 

(Image: Winn McNamee/Getty)