When reports began circulating last week that voting machines in Texas were flipping ballots cast for Beto O’Rourke over to Ted Cruz, and machines in Georgia were changing votes for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to those for her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, it would not have been unreasonable to suppose that those machines had been hacked. After all, their vulnerabilities have been known for nearly two decades. In September, J. Alex Halderman, a computer-science professor at the University of Michigan, demonstrated to members of Congress precisely how easy it is to surreptitiously manipulate the AccuVote TS, a variant of the direct-recording electronic (D.R.E.) voting machines used in Georgia. In addition, Halderman noted, it is impossible to verify that the votes cast were not the votes intended, since the AccuVote does not provide a physical record of the transaction.
Election-security experts, meanwhile, used the opportunity to remind the public—yet again—how susceptible touch-screen voting machines are to error, especially because they often rely on outdated and unsupported software. As the Brennan Center for Justice cautioned back in 2008, typically machines flip votes because they aren’t properly calibrated. This can happen, and does happen, to candidates from any party. But none of that was what we were hearing from election officials themselves. “The machines do not have glitches,” Stan Stanart, the county clerk in Harris County, Texas, which uses a system called the Hart InterCivic eSlate, told a local television station. He blamed mistakes on the voters themselves.
The irony here is that these particular vote-flipping machines were deployed across the country in response to the monumental failure of punch-card voting machines during the 2000 Presidential election, when so-called hanging chads very likely resulted in the wrong man winning. The crisis that ensued inspired a bipartisan Congress, in 2002, to pass the Help America Vote Act (hava). Among other things, hava created the Election Assistance Commission, which it then deputized to test and certify voting machines. The act also allocated millions of dollars for election-infrastructure upgrades, much of which was used to replace traditional voting machines with computerized machines like eSlate and the AccuVoteTS. Georgia, in fact, was the first state to adopt D.R.E. touch screens statewide.
Those machines are still in service, despite their well-documented problems. A lawsuit to compel Georgia to use paper ballots in the November midterms fell short in September, when Judge Amy Totenberg, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, ruled that there was not enough time to get a paper-ballot system up and running. But she also wrote that the plaintiffs had shown that Georgia’s voting machines posed “a concrete risk of alteration of ballot counts that would impact their own votes.” Totenberg added that “given the absence of an independent paper audit trail of the vote, the scope of this threat is difficult to quantify, though even a minor alteration of votes in close electoral races can make a material difference in the outcome.”