Voting precincts are steadily moving away from paperless machines
Feb 29, 2024

Voting precincts are steadily moving away from paperless machines

Security concerns loom large in this year's presidential election. Megan Maier of the organization Verified Voting discusses how to reduce the risk that voting machines could be involved in inaccurate or manipulated ballot counts.

“DRE” is the acronym in election-speak. It stands for direct-recording electronic voting machines … the kind that record votes directly into a computer’s memory, often with no paper trail.

In an effort to boost security and ensure more reliable counting of ballots across the country, officials have been replacing them with voting machines that produce a paper backup. And there has been noticeable progress on this front.

According to a recent report from the nonprofit organization Verified Voting and the Brennan Center for Justice, in 2016 about 22% of registered voters were in jurisdictions that used DREs. By 2020, that figure had fallen to 9% and could drop considerably further this year.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Megan Maier, co-author of the Verified Voting report, about replacing what’s left of these outdated machines and bringing that number down to zero.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Megan Maier: We use age of equipment as one way of measuring equipment usage and changes through time. Election equipment doesn’t suddenly become too old after it’s been in the field for 10 years versus nine years. But what is most important is for local jurisdictions to replace that equipment that’s no longer being manufactured.

Lily Jamali: Yeah, and one of the things I found very interesting in your report was you actually talk to people on the ground, election officials that are, you know, they are the eyes and ears out in the world when it comes to this issue. One of them told you that he felt lucky to be able to get spare parts for discontinued systems. What did you make of that when you heard it?

Maier: And I’ll credit our partners at the Brennan Center for talking to that election official. I have spoken to many, many election officials over the last few years. And one of the things that I hear a lot is that concern with planning properly for when they can make those purchases, because sort of like buying a new car, you need to make that purchase before your current car stops working. And you want to do it if you can do a trade-in, you want there to be trade-in value. But you don’t want to make that purchase while you still have a relatively new car, right? — trying to be fiscally responsible. So it’s very concerning to hear that folks aren’t able to find spare parts or get proper maintenance done on the equipment that they have.

Jamali: And so what is standing in the way of that?

Maier: So we’ve seen great progress toward replacing less secure equipment, toward replacing the equipment that’s no longer manufactured. We want to keep that going. And what we really need is sustained federal funding, so that election officials can plan ahead and prepare for when they need to replace the technology when it’s right for their jurisdiction, not just when that money is there.

Jamali: I wonder if you can just remind us why this is so important. How did this become an issue?

Maier: Security experts advocated against the use of direct-recording electronic voting machines without verifiable paper audit trails. They don’t produce a paper record of the voters’ selections. So not only can the voter not check their selections after they voted and before they cast their ballot, those selections are just recorded directly into computer memory. But then also election officials can’t use any sort of paper record because one doesn’t exist to do a meaningful post-election audit to check the results of the election. So it’s really good that we’ve moved away from those over the years.

More on this

Maier and her co-authors estimate that the bill for replacing the remaining paperless electronic voting machines could run up to $37.5 million.

The Brennan Center has also written about how longstanding safeguards can help stop election deniers who have tried to refuse certifying valid election results.

Attacks on certification did not end after insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, at the urging of Donald Trump, in a bid to stop Congress from certifying the results of an election that Joe Biden had won, the report reads. The attacks merely shifted to the local and state levels.

Security concerns loom large in this year’s presidential election, as more people closely scrutinize vote counts and try to sow doubt in election officials and the accuracy of their counting.

A recent article in the Star Tribune discusses one example of these tensions in Rice County, Minnesota, where people have demanded that officials get rid of electronic voting and count ballots the old-fashioned way — by hand.

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