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Want a Simple Way to Increase Election Security? Use Paper

Electronic pollbooks are an overlooked vulnerability in election systems. The way to recover from electronic pollbook malfunctions is to have paper backups ready.

Despite all the talk about the threat of cyber­at­tacks against U.S. elec­tions, one area has largely been over­looked: elec­tronic poll­books. Before elec­tronic poll­books, a voter would show up at the polls and an elec­tion worker would search through a paper book that contained the names of all the voters in her precinct. Once located, the voter would sign in, receive a piece of paper from the poll worker, show that paper to another worker controlling access to a voting machine, and then cast a ballot. 

Today, 34 states use elec­tronic poll­books in at least some polling places, and six states — Color­ado, Geor­gia, Mary­land, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Utah — use them statewide. As elec­tronic versions of voter regis­tra­tion lists — typic­ally on a laptop computer or tablet — elec­tronic poll­books allow poll work­ers to find voters’ names more quickly and determ­ine if the voter is at the proper polling place or if the voter has already cast a ballot. This last func­tion is partic­u­larly useful in states with early voting and vote centers, which can permit people to vote at one of a number of polling places, regard­less of their resid­en­tial address.

To func­tion, many elec­tronic poll­books need to update inform­a­tion across numer­ous devices and loca­tions. In many systems, this requires the abil­ity to connect via wire­less commu­nic­a­tion. Yet, integ­rat­ing elec­tronic poll­books into wire­less networks can add secur­ity risks. In a worst-case scen­ario, hack­ers could access these networks and alter or delete voter regis­tra­tion data, even caus­ing voters to appear as if they have voted when they have not. Elec­tronic poll­books that require access to the Inter­net can also pose prob­lems in rural counties that lack reli­able connectiv­ity. All offi­cials using these devices must prepare for the possib­il­ity of system malfunc­tion. 

The solu­tion to these chal­lenges is relat­ively simple. All polling places using elec­tronic poll­books should have paper poll­books ready in case of system malfunc­tion. In case backup paper poll­books are unavail­able or are found to contain errors, polling places should have an adequate number of “provi­sional ballots” (which can be coun­ted after a voter’s regis­tra­tion inform­a­tion is confirmed). Unfor­tu­nately, the Bren­nan Center found that of the 34 states that use elec­tronic poll­books, only half require paper backups to be present in every polling place at the time voting begins.

For instance, during the 2015 muni­cipal primar­ies in Porter County, Indi­ana, a north­ern county east of Gary that borders Lake Michigan, elec­tronic poll­books in at least 30 of the county’s 136 polling places weren’t oper­at­ing when they opened at 7:00 a.m. Last year, there were prob­lems in a hand­ful of polling places in Minneapolis when poll work­ers used iPads for the first time to check in voters. During the 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, dozens of voters in Durham, North Caro­lina, were turned away in part because elec­tronic poll­books incor­rectly showed that they had voted. Voting was delayed in some precincts for up to an hour and a half, as poll work­ers waited for new supplies to replace the faulty elec­tronic poll­books. 

None of these prob­lems are believed to have been the work of a mali­cious actor. But someone with malevol­ent intent could cause substan­tial delay, confu­sion, and damage in elec­tronic poll­book juris­dic­tions. It is crit­ical that elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors using elec­tronic poll­books adopt robust contin­gency plans.



Any effect­ive contin­gency plan for elec­tronic poll­books should include both of the follow­ing elements:

  1. All polling places using elec­tronic poll­books should have backup paper systems on hand to use in case of elec­tronic poll­book fail­ure. 
  1. All polling places, espe­cially those using elec­tronic poll­books, should have enough provi­sional ballots to cover three hours of peak voting activ­ity in case any poll­book prob­lems result in voting delays. 

The Import­ance of Paper Backup of E-Poll­books

Although elec­tronic poll­books have become the norm, some­times there is no substi­tute for paper. In the August Arizona primary, govern­ment contract­ors were supposed to set up elec­tronic poll­books in Mari­copa County’s (Phoenix) more than 500 polling places. By 6:00 a.m. on Elec­tion Day, word came that set-up had not been finished in 62 of them. Although everything was finished by 11:30 a.m., for some voters that was too late. In addi­tion, even in those precincts where the elec­tronic poll­books had been set up, there still were glitches, with some voters being redir­ec­ted to other loca­tions.

All this confu­sion could have been minim­ized if each polling loca­tion had backup paper poll­books to check in voters. 




The Import­ance of Provi­sional Ballots

In June, South Dakota held a primary to determ­ine nomin­ees for one of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats, its sole House seat, and the members of its state Legis­lature. Yet, in Penning­ton County (Rapid City), all 44 of its elec­tronic poll­books failed to connect to the Inter­net. In 16 precincts, voting was halted until backup paper poll­books could be delivered, lead­ing some voters to leave without cast­ing a ballot. Julie Pear­son, the auditor and top elec­tion offi­cial in Penning­ton County, said no direct­ive was issued to offer provi­sional ballots to incon­veni­enced voters. The vendor for the state’s elec­tronic poll­books partly blamed the prob­lems on faulty Wi-Fi connectiv­ity in many counties aside from Penning­ton, includ­ing Hughes, Brown, Brook­ings, Yank­ton, Sully, Hyde, and Potter. 

Most states that use elec­tronic poll­books do not set a mandat­ory minimum of provi­sional paper ballots that precincts should have on hand if elec­tronic poll­books fail. For federal elec­tions, Connecti­cut requires that each polling place have paper ballots equal­ing at least 1 percent of the eligible voters in the district or an amount set by local elec­tion offi­cials. In Ohio, the secret­ary of state requires that each precinct have at least 5 percent more provi­sional ballots than were cast at that loca­tion in a similar elec­tion. 

In 32 of the 34 states using elec­tronic poll­books, the Bren­nan Center found no require­ments in state law or regu­la­tion mandat­ing a minimum number of provi­sional ballots (although several of these states — includ­ing Color­ado, Connecti­cut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wyom­ing — may need fewer provi­sional ballots because they either do not register voters or have Elec­tion Day regis­tra­tion).



In the days lead­ing up to the elec­tion, it is crit­ical that elec­tion offi­cials are adequately prepared to effect­ively recover from system malfunc­tions and cyber­at­tacks. Elec­tronic poll­books are an over­looked, yet vulner­able, element in the elec­tion system. Low-tech, common-sense solu­tions like having paper backups and enough provi­sional ballots to cope with three hours of peak voting can greatly dimin­ish the risk that prob­lems with these systems will prevent people from voting.

(Photo: Shut­ter­; maps: BCJ)