This article was originally posted at the Freedom to Tinker blog.
Over the past 15 years, almost all the states have moved away from paperless touchscreen voting systems (DREs) to optical-scan paper ballots. They’ve done so because if a paperless touchscreen is hacked to give fraudulent results, there’s no way to know and no way to correct; but if an optical scanner were hacked to give fraudulent results, the fraud could be detected by a random audit of the paper ballots that the voters actually marked, and corrected by a recount of those paper ballots.
Optical-scan ballots marked by the voters are the most straightforward way to make sure that the computers are not manipulating the vote. Second-best, in my opinion, is the use of a ballot-marking device (BMD), where the voter uses a touchscreen to choose candidates, then the touchscreen prints out an optical-scan ballot that the voter can then deposit in a ballot box or into an optical scanner. Why is this second-best? Because (1) most voters are not very good at inspecting their computer-marked ballot carefully, so hacked BMDs could change some choices and the voter might not notice, or might notice and think it’s the voter’s own error; and (2) the dispute-resolution mechanism is unclear; pollworkers can’t tell if it’s the machine’s fault or your fault; at best you raise your hand and get a new ballot, try again, and this time the machine “knows” not to cheat.
Third best is “DRE with paper trail”, where the paper ballot prints out behind glass; the voter can inspect it, but it can be difficult and discouraging to read a long ballot behind glass, and there’s pressure just to press the “accept” button and get on with it. With hand-marked optical-scan ballots there’s much less pressure to hurry: you’re not holding up the line at the voting machine, you’re sitting at one of the many cheap cardboard privacy screens with a pen and a piece of paper, and you don’t approach the optical scanner until you’re satisfied with your ballot. That’s why states (such as North Carolina) that had previously permitted “DRE with paper trail” moved last year to all optical-scan.
Now there’s an even worse option than “DRE with paper trail;” I call it “press this button if it’s OK for the machine to cheat” option. The country’s biggest vendor of voting machines, ES&S, has a line of voting machines called ExpressVote. Some of these are optical scanners (which are fine), and others are “combination” machines, basically a ballot-marking device and an optical scanner all rolled into one.
This video shows a demonstration of ExpressVote all-in-one touchscreens purchased by Johnson County, Kansas. The voter brings a blank ballot to the machine, inserts it into a slot, chooses candidates. Then the machine prints those choices onto the blank ballot and spits it out for the voter to inspect. If the voter is satisfied, she inserts it back into the slot, where it is counted (and dropped into a sealed ballot box for possible recount or audit).
So far this seems OK, except that the process is a bit cumbersome and not completely intuitive (watch the video for yourself). It still suffers from the problems I describe above: voter may not carefully review all the choices, especially in down-ballot races; counties need to buy a lot more voting machines, because voters occupy the machine for a long time (in contrast to op-scan ballots, where they occupy a cheap cardboard privacy screen).
But here’s the amazingly bad feature: “The version that we have has an option for both ways,” [Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie] Metsker said. “We instruct the voters to print their ballots so that they can review their paper ballots, but they’re not required to do so. If they want to press the button ‘cast ballot,’ it will cast the ballot, but if they do so they are doing so with full knowledge that they will not see their ballot card, it will instead be cast, scanned, tabulated and dropped in the secure ballot container at the backside of the machine.” [TYT Investigates, article by Jennifer Cohn, September 6, 2018]
Now it’s easy for a hacked machine to cheat undetectably! All the fraudulent vote-counting program has to do is wait until the voter chooses between “cast ballot without inspecting” and “inspect ballot before casting”. If the latter, then don’t cheat on this ballot. If the former, then change votes how it likes, and print those fraudulent votes on the paper ballot, knowing that the voter has already given up the right to look at it.
Johnson County should not have bought these machines; if they’re going to use them, they must insist that ES&S disable this “permission to cheat” feature.
Union County New Jersey and the entire state of Delaware are (to the best of my knowledge) in the process of purchasing ExpressVote XL machines, which are like the touchscreens shown in the video but with a much larger screen that can show the whole ballot at once. New Jersey and Delaware should not buy these machines. If they insist on buying them, they must disable the “permission to cheat” feature.
Of course, if the permission-to-cheat feature is disabled, that reverts to the cumbersome process shown in the video: (1) receive your bar-code card and blank ballot from the election worker; (2) insert the blank ballot card into the machine; (3) insert the bar-code card into the machine; (4) make choices on the screen; (5) press the “done” button; (6) wait for the paper ballot to be ejected; (7) compare the choices listed on the ballot with the ones you made on the screen; (8) put the ballot back into the machine.
Wouldn’t it be better to use conventional optical-scan balloting, as most states do? (1) receive your optical-scan ballot from the election worker; (2) fill in the ovals with a pen, behind a privacy screen; (3) bring your ballot to the optical scanner; (4) feed your ballot into the optical scanner.
I thank Professor Philip Stark (interviewed in the TYT article cited above) for bringing this to my attention.