A recent court decision permitting Alabama officials to destroy digital copies of paper ballots eliminates an important tool for ensuring electoral integrity, said two experts interviewed on the day of Alabama’s special U.S. Senate election. Both experts also said paper ballots – which are maintained for 22 months after the election – provide the most security in the event of a recount. Yesterday, a circuit court judge in Alabama ordered election officials to preserve digital copies created when machines scan paper ballots. That decision was stayed by the Alabama Supreme Court later that day, which will allow state officials to destroy the copies. John Sebes, chief technology officer for the OSET Institute, a California-based non-profit dedicated to improving election integrity, said officials can use digital copies and paper ballots to check for glitches and fraud. A comparison of copies and originals can show whether machines are scanning and counting correctly.
“If it goes to a recount, we’re going to have to go through some legal battles to get to the point where we’re actually counting paper ballots,” Sebes said. “I think having digital backups would help.”
Alabama counties use optical scanners to record votes cast on paper ballots. Sebes said saving digital copies is not difficult, but ensuring their security would require extra work by election officials. Most state election offices aren’t very well staffed or resourced, which could make it difficult to protect digital copies.