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Voting security still depends on low-tech paper trails
Oct 25, 2022

Voting security still depends on low-tech paper trails

Relatively few paperless voting machines are used in the U.S., but both low- and high-tech approaches have pros and cons. Hand counting, though much discussed, is prone to human error.

Since the 2020 election, there’s been a lot of attention on, misinformation about and lawsuits over the technology many jurisdictions use in voting.

It’s rare for a voting system in the U.S. to be “paperless.” Typically, these systems use a combination of high-tech and low-tech, like a voting machine that prints out a paper ballot with your electronic choices.

Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams recently discussed the shift away from paperless systems with Lawrence Norden, senior director of the Elections and Government Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit law and policy institute.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Lawrence Norden: The vast, vast majority of voters will find a paper ballot. That is about how two-thirds of Americans who vote on Election Day are going to vote. About 20% of jurisdictions have what are known as ballot-marking devices that allow a voter to fill out a paper ballot with the machine. For less than 10% of voters in the United States, they’re going to use what’s known as direct-recording electronic machines. These machines have really fallen out of favor in the U.S. Some of these machines are paperless. Since about 2004 or 2006, there’s been a move away from paperless machines. [The] most dramatic move probably came after 2016, when there was Russian attacks on some of the election infrastructure in the United States. And then we moved back to paper.

Kimberly Adams: Despite false narratives, the machines and technology used to count votes have been shown time and time again to be reliable. But what are some of the areas where this technology in the field could be improved, or maybe just improved in a way that might increase trust in the outcome of these elections?

Norden: There are always improvements that can be made in technology. And one thing about the systems that we’re using is they’re computers, they have got to be replaced probably every 10 or 15 years, like any computer. The biggest thing that we can improve on when it comes to security around the machines revolves around the testing that we do beforehand, and the post-election audits afterwards. These machines have proven themselves to be remarkably accurate when we do those post-election audits. But I do think showing the public that the machines are recording votes accurately would be very helpful to voter confidence. In 2020, 93% of Americans either voted on a paper ballot or there was a paper record of their vote. The more that we do those post-election audits, the more that we do them well, the more that we do them publicly, the more confidence people should have in the fact that the machines are working properly.

Adams: Some politicians are pushing for laws that would enforce hand counting each individual ballot and removing the technology altogether. What are the advantages and disadvantages there?

Norden: Unfortunately, if you’re in a jurisdiction of really any size, they’re mostly disadvantages to hand counting. It’s extremely time consuming and prone to human error because there are a lot of ballots to count and people aren’t very good at counting them. And in the United States, when Americans are voting, they’re usually voting for multiple offices. So we’ve seen error rates of something like 1% to 2% in doing hand counts of anything, you know, more than 1,000 [or] 2,000 ballots at once.

Adams: Despite the fact that there is this big push to move back to more paper ballots, there are some distinct advantages to using these higher-tech options, right?

Norden: Yeah, there’s no question. There’s a reason that we moved to the machines that we’re using today. In 2000, there were hundreds of thousands of votes that were thrown out because voters made errors when filling out their ballots. There were the “hanging chads” [that complicated Florida’s presidential vote count], there were people who accidentally voted in a way that the machine interpreted as selecting two candidates. We used to lose close to 1% of the votes because of voter error. And the machines that we’re using today have really virtually eliminated that problem because the machine won’t let you select two candidates. So that’s been a huge improvement.

Adams: If you plan to vote in these midterm elections, will you feel confident that the technology in your jurisdiction is going to count your vote accurately?

Norden: Absolutely. No question. And the 2020 election, it was actually one of the best tests that we’ve ever had about how well the voting technology in the United States works. Forty-four states conduct post-election audits where they’re looking at a portion of the paper and comparing it to the results that the machines provide. In all of those states, they were able to confirm that the machines were recording votes accurately. That’s really a remarkable record. No system is perfect, of course, but we’re really lucky in the United States that we have multiple layers of resiliency, and we can check to ensure accuracy.

The nonprofit Verified Voting has a breakdown of the kinds of voting equipment used to gather and count votes in this country, from human hands to optical scanners.

The site also details some types of voting systems no longer in use, like mechanical levers or punch card systems. No one wants to repeat that hanging chad drama of the 2000 election.

The Brennan Center has its own report on voting machines, which found that the cost of potentially replacing paperless voting machines in some areas with a hybrid system of paper and paperless tech … would be about $105 million.

That doesn’t include costs to replace other, potentially outdated equipment used in polling places and designed to assist physically disabled voters.

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The team

Daniel Shin Daniel Shin
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer