Paper ballots can ensure a secure, resilient election next year
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Next year’s election is still 18 months away, but it’s never too soon to start thinking about security. Voting systems are a little different wherever you go and the tech has changed over the years — from paper ballots to electronic ones to something in between.
Most jurisdictions in the U.S. now use hand-marked paper ballots, or paper ballots marked with an electronic interface, and counted with optical scanners or by hand, should the need arise.
Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino spoke with Pam Smith, president and CEO of Verified Voting, who said that’s the gold standard for security. That nonpartisan organization recently published its recommendations for 2024. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Pam Smith: Well, the good news is that most jurisdictions now do have paper ballots that are marked by voters. In the past, that wasn’t always the case. We had paperless equipment that couldn’t really be legitimately recounted or checked. When voters mark a physical ballot, they’re just sort of checking as they go: you’re looking for the name of your preferred candidate, you’re finding where to market, you’re checking, make sure you filled all of the bubbles in that you were supposed to. Voters want to know that their vote is being captured the way they intended. And so you need that physical ballot, because that’s the evidence of voter intent, that’s what counts when there’s an audit or a recount of the election. So we’re in a much better place than we were. And I think that’s why the 2020 election was called the most secure in recent history, because precisely of the fact that there was paper in most jurisdictions, and there were audits in most jurisdictions checking the outcome.
Meghan McCarty Carino: What has changed since 2020, or even since 2016?
Smith: Well, one of the concerns is that there’s been so much mis- and disinformation. And voters end up being not sure how to get good information. Because there’s no-one-size-fits-all, everybody has to go to their local election officials for the right information.
McCarty Carino: Right. So securing the actual election is one thing and then securing the narrative around that election seems to be another thing. What recommendations do you have for countering mis- and disinformation around elections?
Smith: We work on this a lot with many partners, and much research gets done on on how to do this. It’s a very challenging effort. Election officials have had to not only become kind of technologists in their own right, but also communication specialists as well. I think the most important thing is for people to understand [to] avoid social media frenzy and mis- and disinformation. If you can reach your election official directly, contact them to get your questions answered. Find the information only on election officials’ websites. There is election protection for people — 1-866-Our-Vote is a hotline number that people can call on the off chance they can’t get through to their election official, because these are organizations that work against mis- and disinformation and for voters being able to vote in real time on election day. And so I think that those kinds of protections are really important. Social media, when it comes from your election official, is fine. Subscribe to your election officials’ feeds, of course, but don’t take what your your friend’s cousin’s uncle said from some other state that isn’t going to be accurate for where you are.
McCarty Carino: In your report, you detail some of the issues that have come up in recent elections: ballot scanners malfunctioning, electronic poll books sort of misidentifying absentee voters. What do these tell us about how to secure future elections?
Smith: Well, I think what they tell us is that elections are not immune to Murphy’s Law. Technology might do some things really well, but it’s also programmed by human beings and things can go wrong. What those things tell us is the importance of that backup plan of resilient way of deploying equipment and technology. And I think that’s what people need to think about with the technology: can you still vote? Or, if it’s a check in system, can you still check in to vote?
McCarty Carino: Voting in this country is such a decentralized process. The systems are different from state to state, from county to county, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. How does that affect election security?
Smith: Well, it can be a benefit. If everyone’s using the same system and that system were vulnerable in some way, then everyone’s votes are vulnerable. It’s important to have an awareness that elections are decentralized like that because you have tiny jurisdictions with 1,000 voters. And then you have mega jurisdictions, like LA County, which has what 6 million voters. And then you have everything in between. But most jurisdictions are small [and] maybe they don’t need as much equipment or as much technology as a larger jurisdiction. It just depends on the jurisdiction. So what’s most important to the security of elections is that equipment is kept up to date, that it’s tested rigorously. Pre-election testing happens in all jurisdictions across the country, it needs to be rigorous, and check for all the ballot positions, all of the ballot styles, all of the languages, whatever variation there is in your jurisdiction that needs to be tested, can find all kinds of things that need to be corrected before the election happens. And then, once the election is underway, you do that post-election check of an audit. That’s what makes it secure. So it doesn’t matter if it’s brand A or brand B or brand C, but what we do say is it must have paper. Voters must be able to mark their ballot. And election officials need to be able to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the public that the count was correct.
McCarty Carino: So the peak in election technology is a human on a piece of paper?
Smith: Yeah, it really is. I mean, accessibility has been, I think, addressed, really, in some ways. But there’s much more that can be done to make voting accessible. But that’s really necessary and we can’t leave it out. But for most voters that don’t need to use an electronic interface, they would want to use that paper ballot.
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