On Tuesday, like lots of other folks, I’ll be heading to the polls to vote. I live in Massachusetts, where voting is done by paper ballot. You get a ballot on heavy stock paper, indicate your vote by filling in the appropriate ovals with a marker and the ballot gets read and counted by an optical scanner. Every time I vote, I’m taken back to my elementary school days in late 1970s in Pittsburgh: filling out my ballot is just like it was filling out a standardized test form 35 years ago. Why is that, in a time when I can pay for my morning coffee using my phone, we still use this old school approach to voting? Surely, using a more up-to-date technology would be a better way to go, right? Turns out, not necessarily and, in fact, it’s hard to beat a good old paper ballot.
These days, almost all voting in the United States is done via one of two methods: paper ballots that are usually optically scanned (although some hand counting is still done) or Direct Recording Electronic voting (DRE). DRE voting machines are, basically, computers that present the ballot on a screen; voters indicate their choices by either pushing a button or a touchscreen. The vote is processed and counted by the computer and there you go.
DRE voting machines have some obvious problems that paper ballots don’t. First of all, they’re computer systems (hardware), which can break down or malfunction. Secondly, the software involved can have bugs or be hacked. Thirdly, these machines can also be the subjects of man-in-the-middle attacks, which can be used to alter vote counts. Finally, the software is usually proprietary and protected by trade-secret laws, meaning it often can’t be evaluated to ensure it’s working properly.
… Do the states or precincts that user DRE also require VVPAT? Not most of them, according to a joint survey on the voting technology preparedness of each state released this past summer by the Verified Voting Foundation, the Rutgers School of Law and Common Cause Education Fund. The report evaluated and rated each state’s voting technology on a number of criteria, such as whether paper records are required, contingency plans for technology failures are in place, and whether post-election audits or accounting and reconciliation procedures are conducted. They report that 23 states currently use DRE, either solely or in combination with paper ballots. Of those states, 16 were deemed to be “Inadequate,” meaning that some or all of the counties using DRE don’t require VVPAT. So, almost half the states use e-voting, and two-thirds of those don’t require a paper trail, meaning in the case of a close election or accusations of malfunction or fraud, there’s no way to go back and independently verify that votes were properly counted.