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To Avoid an Election Meltdown, Officials Must Stockpile Backup Paper Ballots

Emergency paper ballots can allow voting to continue even when touchscreen machines go down.

Published: September 29, 2020

In June, Geor­gia conduc­ted a primary elec­tion now infam­ous for long lines. Across the state, there were prob­lems with elec­tronic poll­books, access cards to start up touch­screen voting machines, and the touch­screen machines them­selves. State offi­cials and the vendor blamed “human error” and poor train­ing, but machine troubles in Geor­gia, and else­where, are noth­ing new, as a federal judge just noted in a court order mandat­ing effect­ive backup for the tech­no­logy prob­lems. foot­note1_3y699hb 1 Mark Niesse and Alan Judd, “Elec­tion Fiasco Reveals Flaws with Geor­gi­a’s New Voting System," Atlanta Journal-Consti­tu­tion, June 14, 2020, https://www.ajc.com/news/state—re­gional-govt—­polit­ics/elec­tion-fiasco-reveals-flaws-with-geor­gia-new-voting-system/FoZjtL­G­PYc­cOrHzX­HiPbDL/; Jaclyn Cosgrove, John Myers, and Matt Stiles, “L.A. County Primary Voting Was Plagued with Tech­no­logy Flaws,” Los Angeles Times, June 17, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/cali­for­nia/story/2020–06–17/l-a-county-primary-voting-was-plagued-with-tech­no­logy-flaws; Fadel Allas­san, “Judge Orders Geor­gia to have Paper Backups of Poll­books on Elec­tion Day,” Axios, last updated Septem­ber 28, 2020, https://www.axios.com/judge-geor­gia-poll­books-paper-backups-d83c46db-48e5–45d7–97ab-62f459d3b629.html.  As new poll work­ers start across the coun­try, diffi­culty learn­ing how to troubleshoot and oper­ate voting tech­no­logy will likely persist in Novem­ber. foot­note2_3oj25e2 2 Jonathan Diaz, “Why You Should Be a Poll­worker this Year,” CNN, Septem­ber 1, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/01/opin­ions/poll-worker-recruit­ment-covid-19-diaz/index.html. Moreover, the risk of a cyber­at­tack against elec­tion infra­struc­ture remains a concern, with local govern­ments and elec­tion vendors having been subject to ransom­ware attacks over the past year. foot­note3_6f624fk 3 Tom Burt, “New Cyber­at­tacks Target­ing U.S. Elec­tions,” Microsoft, Septem­ber 10, 2020, https://blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2020/09/10/cyber­at­tacks-us-elec­tions-trump-biden/; Nicole Perl­roth and David E. Sanger, “Ransom­ware Attacks Take on New Urgency Ahead of Ahead of Vote,” New York Times, Septem­ber 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/27/tech­no­logy/2020-elec­tion-secur­ity-threats.html.

Fortu­nately, there’s a simple solu­tion to let voting continue in the face of inev­it­able tech­nical diffi­culties: an ample supply of backup paper supplies. foot­note4_u7cp­d22 4 Edgardo Cortés, et al., “Prepar­ing for Cyber­at­tacks and Tech­nical Prob­lems During the Pandemic: A Guide for Elec­tion Offi­cials,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, June 5, 2020, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/prepar­ing-cyber­at­tacks-and-tech­nical-prob­lems-during-pandemic-guide. If voting machines are malfunc­tion­ing or inop­er­able, poll work­ers can provide voters with emer­gency backup paper ballots to hand-mark until the machines can be fixed. Provi­sional ballot­ing mater­i­als can be used when elec­tronic poll­book issues — or a cyber­at­tack on the regis­tra­tion data­base — prevents poll work­ers from know­ing whether voters are eligible or whether their absentee ballots have been received and accep­ted for count­ing. foot­note5_wcub9uz 5 Edgardo Cortés, et al., “Prepar­ing for Cyber­at­tacks and Tech­nical Prob­lems During the Pandemic.” Unfor­tu­nately, Geor­gia did not have enough backup mater­i­als in the spring, and a federal judge just ordered all Geor­gia elec­tion offi­cials to keep updated paper poll­books in each polling place that can be used to check voter eligib­il­ity to cast a regu­lar ballot, along with a “suffi­cient” level of emer­gency paper ballots to provide voters. foot­note6_xihh­m2g 6 Kevin Morris, “Digging into the Geor­gia Primary,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, published August 24, 2020, last updated, Septem­ber 10, 2020, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/digging-geor­gia-primary.

To be suffi­cient, there should be enough emer­gency and provi­sional mater­i­als to keep voter lines moving for up to three hours while any tech­nical issues can be iden­ti­fied and resolved. In 2020, this will likely require precincts to have enough backup mater­i­als for 40 percent of all Elec­tion Day voters.

While unpre­ced­en­ted levels of early and mail voting are expec­ted due to the pandemic, Elec­tion Day voting is still what most are famil­iar with. It’s unreas­on­able to bank on the vast major­ity of voters cast­ing their ballots ahead of Elec­tion Day. Yet if they stick to current policies in purchas­ing their Elec­tion Day backup supplies, that’s the gamble juris­dic­tions will be taking. Fortu­nately, they can still print more supplies now.

End Notes

Ripple Effects from the Morn­ing Rush

Tech­nical fail­ures are going to occur. And when they do, voters may feel the effects all day. Most juris­dic­tions see the largest rush of voters in the morn­ing during the first few hours that polling places are open. foot­note1_u1y5byk 1 Surveys from the 2016 elec­tion show that “nearly a quarter of Elec­tion Day voters had cast a vote by 9:00 a.m., and 56 percent had voted by noon.” Ninety percent of Elec­tion Day precincts saw their longest lines of the day within the first hour that polls were open. John C. Fortier, Charles Stew­art III, Stephen Petti­grew, Matthew Weil, and Tim Harper, “Improv­ing the Voter Exper­i­ence: Redu­cing Polling Place Wait Times by Meas­ur­ing Lines and Managing Polling Place Resources,” Bipar­tisan Policy Center, 2018, 19, https://bipar­tis­an­policy.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Improv­ing-The-Voter-Exper­i­ence-Redu­cing-Polling-Place-Wait-Times-by-Meas­ur­ing-Lines-and-Managing-Polling-Place-Resources.pdf.  This pattern poses a partic­u­lar prob­lem for elec­tion offi­cials, as morn­ing is also a time when tech­nical issues are espe­cially likely to occur. Elec­tion equip­ment may arrive late, be delivered to the wrong polling place, or set up incor­rectly on elec­tion morn­ing. Moreover, many juris­dic­tions will use new equip­ment in the 2020 general elec­tion, increas­ing the like­li­hood of prob­lems.

Regard­less of sever­ity, prob­lems take time to solve. Elec­tion offi­cials, tech­ni­cians, and other experts cannot be in every polling place. If the prob­lem afflicts several polling places at once, they may not be able to solve issues right away. With many voters arriv­ing at the same time, road­b­locks in the polling place process can quickly lead to long lines.

These impacts can spread far beyond just the morn­ing rush. Evid­ence shows that “[i]f a precinct clears its morn­ing line quickly, it is unlikely to exper­i­ence long wait times for the rest of the day.” foot­note2_6562w0q 2 Fortier, Stew­art, Petti­grew, Weil, and Harper, “Improv­ing the Voter Exper­i­ence,” 26. But if the morn­ing line is not cleared in a reas­on­able time, “long wait times are likely to occur for the entire day.” foot­note3_1ejy3gu 3 Fortier, Stew­art, Petti­grew, Weil, and Harper, “Improv­ing the Voter Exper­i­ence,” 26.

End Notes

Minimum Require­ments

To stop tech­nical fail­ures from creat­ing elec­tion melt­downs, elec­tion offi­cials need to make sure that polling places have enough backup paper supplies on hand to keep lines moving for up to three hours while equip­ment issues can be iden­ti­fied and resolved. This year, elec­tion offi­cials should prepare for 40 percent of Elec­tion Day voters to arrive during the busiest three hours. foot­note1_4mnm­p4j 1 Across eight battle­ground states (Arizona, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Michigan, North Caro­lina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wiscon­sin) an estim­ated 32 percent­–43 percent of Elec­tion Day voters arrived during the busiest three hours in 2016. Charles Stew­art III, “2016 Survey of the Perform­ance of Amer­ican Elec­tions,” 2017, 343, https://data­verse.harvard.edu/data­set.xhtml?persist­en­tId=doi:10.7910/DVN/Y38VIQ.

In Geor­gia, where touch­screen voting machines are used statewide, regu­la­tions require enough emer­gency paper ballots for only 10 percent of all registered voters. This require­ment is not suffi­cient to act as an effect­ive failsafe for voting machine fail­ures. Even if counties exper­i­enced over­all turnout of just 70 percent — well below the predic­tions of historic turnout offi­cials must prepare for — the typical precinct would need 64 percent of its voters to cast ballots early or by mail in order to have enough emer­gency paper ballots for the busiest three hours of Elec­tion Day voting. There would be none leftover for common situ­ations like a voter who finds them­selves at the wrong polling place and needs to cast a provi­sional ballot. And over­all turnout is widely expec­ted to be signi­fic­antly higher than 2016 levels. foot­note2_jif85z6 2 William A. Galston, “Elec­tion 2020: A Once-in-a-Century Massive Turnout?,“ Brook­ings, August 14, 2020, https://www.brook­ings.edu/blog/fixgov/2020/08/14/elec­tion-2020-a-once-in-a-century-massive-turnout/; Ronald Brown­stein, “Brace for a Voter Turnout Tsunami,“ The Atlantic, June 13, 2019, https://www.theat­lantic.com/polit­ics/archive/2019/06/2020-elec­tion-voter-turnout-could-be-record-break­ing/591607/.

Even in Geor­gi­a’s June primary, which would have attrac­ted more frequent voters who are more famil­iar with all their voting options, about 64 percent of all voters, and only about 54 percent of Latino voters, ended up using early and absentee voting. foot­note3_n0q1mah 3 Kevin Morris, “Digging into the Geor­gia Primary,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, published August 24, 2020, last updated, Septem­ber 10, 2020, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/digging-geor­gia-primary. The rest voted on Elec­tion Day. Elec­tion offi­cials must prepare for at least some precincts to hit historic Elec­tion Day turnouts. They cannot simply count on early and mail voting to solve the risk of long lines.

Because they cannot control how many people will vote and when they will cast their ballot, elec­tion offi­cials must focus on what they can control — the amount of backup paper supplies in polling places. By doub­ling the emer­gency ballot supply require­ment to 20 percent of registered voters, as Pennsylvania does, offi­cials can provide enough emer­gency ballots for the busiest three hours under any level of turnout, as long as half of all votes are cast early or by mail. But achiev­ing a 50 percent vote share from early and absentee meth­ods is a tall order in states like Pennsylvania, which began giving voters these options for the first time this year. At 30 percent of registered voters, polling places would have a viable failsafe for voting machine fail­ures under all but the most extreme levels of Elec­tion Day voting. Of course, if emer­gency supplies are used in other situ­ations, such as for provi­sional voters, then greater quant­it­ies may be required. foot­note4_xp1biak 4 In most Geor­gia counties, the same stock of pre-prin­ted ballots used when machines malfunc­tion can also be used when a voter is at the wrong precinct and needs to vote provi­sion­ally.

The spot­light has been bright­est on Geor­gia, but they are not the only state facing a risk of long lines due to insuf­fi­cient paper supplies. Although most battle­ground states that use touch­screen voting machines require polling places to have emer­gency paper ballots, elec­tion offi­cials in almost all of these states must plan to supply more emer­gency paper ballots this year than what current policies call for. foot­note5_22pqq3x 5 At least some counties in North Caro­lina, Geor­gia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Nevada use touch­screen voting machines. Of these, only Nevada does not have an emer­gency paper ballot require­ment for Novem­ber 2020. It is possible that juris­dic­tions in Nevada keep emer­gency paper ballots on hand, in prac­tice. The battle­ground states in which some counties use touch­screen machines on elec­tion day are Geor­gia, North Caro­lina, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Ohio. Geor­gia requires paper ballots for 10 percent of registered voters, Pennsylvania requires enough for 20 percent of registered voters, and North Caro­lina requires enough for 50 percent of registered voters. Ohio requires enough for 15 percent of the total number of voters in the highest voter turnout year in a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion start­ing in 2008. And while most polling places are required to have provi­sional mater­i­als on hand in case voter regis­tra­tion status cannot be veri­fied, minimum amounts are gener­ally not defined in law. foot­note6_k4buh8q 6 Help Amer­ica Vote Act, 116 Stat. 1666, sec. 302 (2002).  

Elec­tion offi­cials should plan to supply enough of these mater­i­als for 40 percent of Elec­tion Day voters — espe­cially where provi­sional ballots are needed for voters who request an absentee ballot but later change their mind and decide to vote in person. 

The right to vote must be preserved for every­one, no matter what state they live in. In these last weeks before Elec­tion Day, supply­ing polling places with enough backup paper mater­i­als — and ensur­ing that poll work­ers know how to use these mater­i­als when they are needed — provides a relat­ively simple way to ensure that inev­it­able tech­nical glitches don’t disen­fran­chise Amer­ic­ans who choose to vote in person.

End Notes