Using paper ballots and audits are two ways that we can quickly bolster our democracy’s defenses for our midterm elections.
The first ballots of the 2018 mid-term elections will soon be cast, but many Americans will exercise this constitutional right without much confidence that their votes will be fairly and securely counted. Partisanship in Congress and bureaucratic delays have left voting even more vulnerable to the attacks that top intelligence officials say will accelerate in 2018. Meanwhile, irrefutable evidence has revealed that Russia engaged in a multifaceted attack on the 2016 election through information warfare, and that hackers also scanned or penetrated state election infrastructure in ways that could lead to manipulation of voter registration data — and possibly change vote totals in 2018. We propose two stopgap measures that can be immediately implemented without waiting for funding or new legislation.
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Cybersecurity experts have repeatedly warned that none of our current voting technologies was designed to withstand the cyberattacks expected in the coming months. This national emergency calls for Americans to act immediately before the voters’ faith in democratic elections is severely undermined. Experts agree there’s time to contain major threats to this year’s elections, but we must rapidly convert from paperless touch-screen voting machines to paper ballots, and upgrade states’ and counties’ verification practices to conduct public post-election ballot audits before local election boards certify the 2018 elections. A post-election audit involves simply checking the computer-generated tabulations against paper ballots to be sure the machine hasn’t been compromised.
In a 2011 report, the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that voter-marked paper ballots are the only way to securely record and preserve voter intent. Computerized election systems, including paper ballot scanners, are vulnerable to hacking. That is why voter marked and voter verified paper ballots must be used and audited as the unimpeachable official record of voter intent. Safeguarded, ballots remain available as a check of the computerized tallies and permit recounts for election results that may be extremely close or even erroneous.
The most vulnerable elections are conducted in 13 states where some or all counties use voting machines that lack paper ballots and therefore cannot be recounted. (Statewide paperless voting: Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey, South Carolina. Some paperless counties: Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee.) In recent years many states have replaced their insecure paperless touchscreen voting machines with paper ballots that are tabulated by optical scanning systems.
Last year, 22 Virginia localities converted to paper ballots within two months of the State Elections Board’s decision to decertify their touchscreen voting machines because of proven insecurities. That transition was possible because absentee and provisional paper ballots were already being scanned and counted by local officials in every county. In fact, most states and counties have the authority and know-how to use and tabulate paper ballots.
A wholesale transition to paper ballots before November is therefore possible almost everywhere. Election officials have considerable discretionary powers and should exercise that authority — as they would in case of a natural disaster, power outage or act of war — to modify voting procedures to protect the 2018 elections. Adopting paper ballots and post-election audits would mean that securing the 2018 elections is not dependent upon deploying effective technological deterrents and counter-measures to protect against all potential cyberattacks, an impossible task.
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In states that do not require election audits, local election boards should use their authority to mandate voting only by paper ballots, followed by audits or post-election reviews to the greatest extent that state law permits. “Audit how to” resources are available, including methods for statistical sampling that can reduce the audit workload. Audits and post-election reviews can be planned now in time for the spring 2018 primaries, and processes then refined for the November election.
Counties converting from bulky, labor-intensive electronic machines to paper ballots often save time and money. With little or no increase in funding, counties can print extra paper ballots, enough for all voters, and they can borrow, rent or acquire more scanners if they currently have too few to easily count all the ballots on Election Night. Yes, if need be, the media and the public may have to wait a few hours longer for Election Night results, a small price to pay for tamper-resistant results that can be checked and recounted to assure that the outcome reflects the will of the voters.
All voters, county political parties, candidates, local poll volunteer and elections officials can urge their County and State officials to take common sense steps to protect the 2018 vote: Use only paper ballots and check the results with audits. Given the recognized threats to American democracy, voters must insist that in 2018 only voting systems that are resilient to hacking be used.
Duncan Buell is a computer science professor at the University of South Carolina who has analyzed voting systems and polling place wait times. Follow him on Twitter: @duncanbuell. Richard DeMillo is a professor of computer science at the Georgia Institute of Technology and has conducted research on the security of electronic voting systems In the state of Georgia and around the world. Follow him on Twitter: @richde. Candice Hoke is the founding co-director of the Center for Cybersecurity & Privacy Protection at Cleveland State University and led the Public Monitor of Cuyahoga Election Reform.
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