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On Election Day, millions of Americans will cast their votes on paperless, insecure voting machines

As many states move to paper ballots, others continue to use insecure paperless electronic voting machines

While some U.S. election officials scramble to replace insecure direct recording electronic voting machines before the 2020 election, others ignore the risk or are hampered by a lack of funds. This November millions of voters in as many as 11 states will cast their ballots on paperless direct recording electronic machines.

Computer scientists and cybersecurity experts have demonstrated numerous vulnerabilities of direct recording electronic machines, from hacking to coding errors. Without a paper record of each vote, there is no way to audit election results when inconsistencies occur, if they are detected at all. The evidence has led many counties across the country to replace insecure paperless voting machines with hand-marked paper ballots or ballot marking devices. In recent years, six states (Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia) switched to election systems with paper ballots.

But a handful of states continue to purchase paperless voting systems, contrary to all evidence that they are not secure. Other states, including New Jersey, Kansas, Mississippi and Indiana, mandate permanent paper records of votes but have not yet replaced aging paperless machines.

Today just in just three states -- Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas -- counties continue to purchase direct recording electronic machines without a paper trail. Louisiana is leasing insecure machines but will select new equipment soon. The Louisiana Secretary of State, Kevin Ardoin, has not ruled out purchasing paperless voting machines.

New proposed federal guidelines and legislation could hasten the end of direct recording electronic machines.

The evidence against direct recording electronic machines

Direct recording electronic machines record a voter’s selection directly to the machine’s memory and automatically tabulate votes. These systems feature numerous vulnerabilities -- from malicious hacking to coding errors – and are fundamentally unverifiable. Computer scientists have demonstrated the speed and ease with which an individual can alter these machines undetected. Last year, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine issued a report warning that paperless systems are not secure and should be removed from service as soon as possible. The committee of computer science and cybersecurity experts, legal and election scholars, social scientists, and election officials concluded that all local, state, and federal elections should be conducted using human-readable paper ballots, either marked by hand or machine.

Discussions of direct recording electronic systems commonly focus on hacking, but software is also vulnerable to incidental coding mistakes or errors that could lead to inaccurate results. The ballot definitions uploaded to each machine prior to an election could include compromised code or errors. Although the machines are not supposed to be connected to the Internet, researchers have documented instances of systems in 10 states connected to the Internet in the last year.

Some newer direct recording electronic systems may come equipped with printers for voter-verifiable paper audit trails, but the electronic vote is the vote of record unless a manual audit is conducted. Compromised systems could potentially print different votes than what is stored electronically.

States need to act

In Texas, Kentucky and Tennessee, the decision and responsibility of purchasing election systems is made county by county. While many counties in these three states use hand-marked paper ballots or ballot-marking devices, others continue to use direct recording electronic machines. Some counties purchased new direct recording electronic systems in 2019, investing millions of dollars in outdated, insecure technology.

In Louisiana, where the Secretary of State is responsible for the selection of voting equipment, the state is leasing direct recording electronic machines as it prepares to draft a new bid solicitation. The original contract to buy ballot marking devices from Dominion Voting Systems was cancelled in October 2018. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin has not indicated that the state will switch to a system based on paper ballots.

Although Mississippi requires voting machines to have a permanent paper record, most counties continue to use direct recording electronic machines, almost all paperless.

New Jersey recognized the threat of paperless voting systems over a decade ago by requiring a paper record of votes but the state never set a deadline for counties. Eighteen of 21 counties in New Jersey continue to use aging direct recording electronic voting machines that do not produce a paper record.

Kansas requires a permanent paper record of votes but six of its 105 counties have not yet replaced paperless machines.

Indiana passed a law in 2019 forbidding counties from using electronic voting systems that do not have a voter verifiable paper audit trail. But counties have until 2030 to comply.

Missouri continues to use direct recording electronic machines with a voter verified paper audit trail.

Many counties are struggling to fund the replacement of machines. Congress proposed additional funds to assist states with improving voting systems but the amounts proposed were not sufficient to replace machines, let alone implement necessary cybersecurity measures and train staff in all states. The Brennan Center examined the potential cost of key election security measures and estimated $833 million is needed.

Direct recording electronic machines do not meet new proposed federal standards

In early 2019, the US Election Assistance Commission released draft updates to its voluntary guidelines for US election systems. For the first time, the proposed Voluntary Voting System Guidelines require that voting systems be auditable and enable evidence-based elections. Direct recording electronic systems do not meet these new proposed guidelines which require that:

  • An error or fault in the voting system software or hardware cannot cause an undetectable change in election results.
  • The voting system produces readily available records that provide the ability to check whether the election outcome is correct and, to the extent possible, identify the root cause of any irregularities.
  • Voting system records are resilient in the presence of intentional forms of tampering and accidental errors.
  • The voting system supports efficient audits.

While the US EAC guidelines are voluntary, states and counties often rely on these guidelines as part of their certification process.

Proposed federal election security legislation prioritizes replacing paperless machines

A number of election security and funding measures were proposed in 2019 through federal legislation and the appropriations process. Many of these proposed laws would require states to replace direct recording electronic machines before spending federal funds on other pressing election needs, such as cybersecurity. 

Court rulings against direct recording electronic machines

In August, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Totenberg stated that use of AccuVote TSX systems in Georgia harms voters and represents “an imminent threat of the diminishment and burdening of their  First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to cast a vote that is properly counted” and must be replaced. This precedent has emboldened advocates in other states to file lawsuits challenging the continued use of direct recording electronic systems.