Why Are Some States Dumping Their Electronic Voting Machines and Going Back to Paper?
In a digital age, you might be surprised to learn that many states once using electronic voting are actually switching back to paper — some after disastrous elections that resulted from the lack of a paper trail.
Florida, New Mexico, Michigan and Washington state are a few that in recent years made the move to require use of paper ballots instead of electronic voting systems, according to Verified Voting President Pamela Smith. But they’re not shying away from technology altogether, these and some other states using paper ballots employ specialized scanners to count the ballots.
In fact, the spokesperson for Dominion Voting, a company that makes technology like these scanners but also supports electronic voting systems, said the pendulum has swung back to scanning systems, even though the general idea of counting ballots in this fashion has been around since the 1930s.
Chris Riggall for Dominion said that while most jurisdictions aren’t investing in new voting systems at all — the budgets just aren’t available — when they do he said optical scanning is what most are looking for.
The benefit of using this form of technology is that it expedites counting, but if it does fail, voting can still continue, whereas electronic system failure can stop ballots from being cast, Smith said.
When it comes overall election preparedness only six states rank as “good” and the rest rate lower for this election, according to Verified Voting Foundation’s metrics. In a report done in collaboration with Rutgers Law School Constitutional Litigation Clinic and Common Cause, Verified Voting ranked states based on use of a paper voting system or paper collected for electric systems to allow for audits; if electronic systems were used, are there emergency paper ballots for cases of machine malfunction; and whether or not audits were conducted of electronic tallies, among other measures.
How Will You Be Voting
Before getting into further the reasons why some jurisdictions might shy away from more technologically advanced polling, let’s take a closer look at the types of voting systems in use on voting day.
According to the Electronic Assistance Commission’s Election Administration and Voting Survey, Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) and Optical Scan (OpScan) are the two most prevalent forms of voting. DRE’s are those often without a paper trail, although Smith said some use a back-up print out for voters to check accuracy, but they’re often not required. OpScan involves a paper ballot that is used to vote and then scanned (sort of like a Scantron test) to count the votes.
Verified Voting, a part advocacy/part information-bearing think tank, shows that 25 percent of states use DREs, while 67 percent use voter-marked paper ballots, with OpScan accounting for the majority of vote counting in 13 states. Some states use a combination of these technologies, especially to comply with the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, which includes provisions for accessibility for disabled users.
Of the more than 180 million registered voters, more than 69,000 of them will still be using punch card voting systems, according to Verified Voting.
Where the Tech Went Wrong
Smith explained that some states, when requirements were set for accessible voting, took the opportunity to switch all their systems to DREs. But over time, the DREs revealed how they could fail.
Whether it be a system booting up slowly and leading to long lines or complete system failure without a paper print out that resulted in thousands of votes being lost — sometimes in highly contestable elections — it has become apparent that DREs have reliability issues. Some may counter that the same issues can occur with voter-marked paper ballots counted by OpScan, but as Smith points out, voting can still continue without the scanner. She said depending on state laws, some jurisdictions with DREs are required to have emergency paper ballots while others just recommend they be on hand.
An example where DREs lead to election controversy was during the 2004 General Election in Carteret County, North Carolina. These machines lost more than 4,400 votes after memory cards became full. The race for the state’s agriculture commissioner, between Republican Steve Troxler and incumbent Democrat Britt Cobb, came down to a 2,300-vote difference. Cobb eventually conceded to end the controversy over the votes that could never have been recovered.
After this incident, Smith said North Carolina passed a law that required a paper trail to be associated with ballots. Smith has several similar stories. She said after voting catastrophes like this, states often revert back to the less high-tech but “tried and true” OpScan systems, or something involving a paper footprint.
“When you rely on a machine interface to take ballots . . . things do go wrong,” Smith said. “It’s Murphy’s Law.”
“Malfunction can disenfranchise voters,” she said, noting that just one machine going down can result in lines that deter voters.
TheBlaze has also reported on three cases of electronic voting systems showing calibration issues where voters casting ballots for GOP candidate Mitt Romney are recording Democratic candidate Barack Obama instead.
Paper Can Save the Day
Although many jurisdictions are making the shift away from use of paper, Smith and Verified Voting see the value in having a paper trail when it comes to casting votes. The 2002 HAVA law has a provision that requires “production of a permanent paper record suitable to be used in a manual recount.” But according to Verified Voting, a significant percentage of jurisdictions with DREs do not have a voter-verified paper record.
Smith explains how this can happen under the law. She said some have interpreted the law to mean that the system produces an end of the day tally, which can sometimes include “ballot images,” although she said these aren’t snapshots of the actual screen. Doing this still complies with the HAVA requirement.
“In our view, that paper record is not really suitable for use in a manual recount, if it doesn’t provide any evidence as to the voter’s intent,” Smith said. “We feel if the voter had no opportunity to check that the paper was printed correctly, that it contains their actual choices and not just the machine’s interpretation (possibly incorrect) of their choices, then that gives that end-of-day printout no real value as ‘evidence’ in the election.”
So, while there was a “flurry trending over [the use of] DREs,” according to Smith, “most are now looking toward auditable and recountable [systems.]”
To Smith, this is the voter-marked paper ballots with OpScan method.
“It provides features you want: recount ability, availability, easy to use and easy to deploy,” she said.
Tips for Election Day
Although it’s important to know what type of machine you might encounter at the voting booths this year, Smith has some tips that could help for a smooth voting experience.
- Go to the polls: One way to be sure your vote will count is to show up.
- Check your vote: If you are in a jurisdiction with a paper trail associated with the DRE (some machines have printers for each vote), verify that your vote was cast correctly. If there is a problem, talk to the poll worker before you hit confirm. If you don’t get a paper trail, be sure to read the screen on which you are voting carefully. If for some reason the machine is not accurately taking your vote, it could be a calibration issue, which should be brought up to a poll worker.
- Long lines: If there are long lines forming due to machine malfunction, ask a poll worker for voter-marked paper ballots or if there are emergency paper ballots on hand.
- Report issues, know your rights: You can contact Election Protection advocates with observed issues or concerns regarding your rights on the voting hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE. The organization has an app for a similar purpose for Android and iPhone.
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