In September 2017, barely two months before Virginians went to the polls to pick a new governor, the state’s board of elections convened an emergency session. The crisis at hand? Touchscreen voting machines. They’d been bought back in the early aughts, when districts across the country, desperate to avoid a repeat of the 2000 “hanging chads” fiasco, decided to go digital. But the new machines were a nightmare, prone to crashes and—worse—hacking. By 2015, Virginia had banned one of the dodgiest models, but others were still in use across the state. Now, with the gubernatorial election looming, officials were concerned that those leftover machines were vulnerable.
They had good reason. Evidence of Russian interference in the US democratic process was mounting. And at the DefCon security conference that summer, whitehat hackers had broken into every electronic voting machine they tried, some in a matter of minutes. (One model had as its hard-coded password “abcde.”) “That really triggered us to action,” recalls Edgardo Cortés, at the time Virginia’s top elections official. So, at the emergency session, he and his colleagues instituted a blanket ban on touchscreen machines. But what next? Virginia officials needed a superior voting technology. They settled on paper. When considered as a form of tech, paper has a killer feature set: It’s intuitive, it doesn’t crash, and it doesn’t need a power source. You can tally ballots rapidly using low-tech scanners, and if it’s necessary to double-check the results (as was the case with several down-ticket contests in Virginia), you can do a manual recount. Paper isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the alternative.
… Maybe we’re just doomed to be Pollyannas—to believe the gauzy promises of tech firms until the stakes become truly existential and, whoops, a flat-out crisis emerges. After all, it took about 15 years before touchscreens developed a reputation sufficiently toxic that we began to ditch them. I’m impressed at the evolved wisdom of election officials, but it’d be nice if the lessons weren’t so bitterly won.
I don’t want to oversell the successes in the world of voting. Twenty-one states still use touchscreen machines, including Georgia and Pennsylvania. And some components of the election system remain hackable, such as electronic poll books and voter databases—both of which, according to Marian Schneider, president of the Verified Voting Foundation, were targeted or breached by Russians in the last presidential election.