Electronic voting was going to be the future. Now paper's making a comeback

New voting systems are coming, but not as soon as you'd like.

Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
Expertise E-commerce, Amazon, earned wage access, online marketplaces, direct to consumer, unions, labor and employment, supply chain, cybersecurity, privacy, stalkerware, hacking. Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie Award for a single article in consumer technology
Laura Hautala
8 min read
USA - 2008 Presidential Election - Early Voting

A voter in Georgia uses an electronic voting machine in 2008. 

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You could call it buyer's remorse. Five US states went all in on electronic voting machines, and four of those states are poised to get out.
Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey and South Carolina are the only states relying solely on voting machines that produce no paper record of an individual voter's ballot. All but Georgia are on the cusp of swapping those out for new machines that print out a paper record of each completed ballot -- and Georgia is under pressure to do the same. None, though, will be ready for next week's midterm elections.
It's the next step in voting systems since Florida's infamous hanging chads and butterfly ballots determined the 2000 presidential election.

As a quick review: Nationwide, the votes for Al Gore and George W. Bush were so close that election results hinged on the state of Florida, including Palm Beach County. There, the elections supervisor had implemented ballots that spread across two pages of the Votamatic punch card. Voters couldn't tell where, exactly, they needed to punch. And in counties around the state, election officials were forced to distinguish among hanging, dimpled, dangling and even swinging chads (the bits left over after the hole punch) to determine valid votes. The debacle prodded election officials in several states and counties to move as far away from paper as possible.

Since then, officials have largely discovered that paper still plays a crucial role: creating an audit trail that verifies votes haven't been altered by hackers or computer glitches. Voting machine software is most vulnerable to hacks in person, but online manipulation is possible, too. And software problems -- like the one noticed by early voters in Texas in October -- might cause a voter's choice to be changed.

Watch this: Go inside Facebook's election war room

Delaware, Louisiana, New Jersey and South Carolina are on course to switch to voting machines that offer a happy medium between paper and digital -- with electronic booths that also print out ballots, making it easy for voters and election officials to confirm that votes were cast as intended.
That audit trail boosts "voter confidence," said Tyler Brey, press secretary for the Louisiana secretary of state. "Before you cast your ballot, you'll be able to look on a piece of paper and see how that machine is going to vote."
The catch? These new voting systems are expensive. South Carolina's election officials, for example, have requested $60 million from the state legislature to replace all of that state's voting machines.

That's money well spent for Louisiana voter George Charlet III, who's been casting his ballot on a purely digital voting machine since 2002.  "I want the peace of mind where I know nothing could go wrong," Charlet said.

Let's not do that again

Florida Approves Voting Reform Bill

States like Florida turned away from paper ballots, especially punchcards, after election officials had to recount ambiguous ballots in the 2000 presidential election.

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Electronic voting machines were supposed to prevent the confusion and pain of the 2000 election, with its vote recounts, challenges and Supreme Court ruling.

In the aftermath of 2000, Congress passed the Help Americans Vote Act and poured money into precincts throughout the country to fund electronic voting systems. Machines now in use in the five paperless states were all purchased at that time.

"Electronic voting machines did eliminate the issue of determining voter intent," said Chris Whitmire, a spokesman for the South Carolina State Election Commission. "It won't let a voter overvote. It will warn them if they undervote."

That's why Jim Smith, a former Florida attorney general who served on the Governor's Select Task Force on Election Procedures, Standards and Technology in 2001, supported switching to direct recording electronic machines, also called DREs. "There was a big flurry of activity about trying to improve the voting machines," he said. "And it seemed to us at that time that the touchscreen, which we recommended that the state go to, was the best technology."

Software flaws

But computer experts were concerned about electronic voting machines from the start.

Andrew Appel, a computer science professor at Princeton, testified as an expert witness in 2004 in a lawsuit against New Jersey election officials that the Achilles' heel of electronic voting machines is software.

Unlike a pen or stylus and a paper ballot, there's no physical connection between a voting touchscreen or electronic button and the hardware that records the vote. The vote is instead transmitted by software. And software has flaws that could potentially let hackers alter the votes. Plus there's no reliable way to tell if the vote has been changed, either deliberately or by mistake, Appel said.

"Faulty software could very easily add a number to the wrong total when a button is pressed or make some other error, thereby misrecording a vote," Appel testified. "I strongly recommend that if DRE machines are to be used, they should be equipped with equipment to print a voter-verified paper ballot."

New Jersey didn't listen. The state still uses paperless voting machines. (Pending legislation, which the New Jersey Department of State declined to comment on, could change that.)

Hacking the vote

Some things have changed since 2004. Not only are people more aware of the dangers of unsecured computers, but people are worried about the integrity of US elections.

That's because of allegations that Russian spy agencies tried to hack into election-related systems in 2016, including voter registration databases, in 21 US states. US intelligence agencies and investigators have said there's no evidence hackers were able to change any votes. Yet the possibility that could happen hangs over any discussion of cybersecurity in the elections.

Appel and a bevy of other hacking experts have shown a variety of ways in which voting machines could be hacked. Most of those techniques demand that a hacker has physical access to the machines to change votes, but recent reports show that some voting machines can connect to the internet, and some of them come with preinstalled remote access software, which makes them more vulnerable to hacks from a distance.

Watch this: Hackers take on new voting machines at Defcon

Hackers could also infiltrate the computers that tabulate results, as security experts found when they examined voting-related software at the annual Defcon hacking conference this year, and they could attack or alter the websites that announce winners. The Defcon experts also found half of US states are using voting machines that have known software vulnerabilities.

That's why Appel now says a paper record of each ballot is just the start. Election agencies also need to carry out something called a risk-limiting audit, in which human inspectors physically look at a certain number of ballots to make sure things appear consistent.

"The purpose is to detect fraud," Appel said in an interview. "It's to make sure that the voting machines were not lying to us about what's on the paper."

Bringing back paper

But before states can get to risk-limiting audits, they need paper records.

Some states are considering moving from machines to paper ballots that voters mark with a pen (then they get counted up by an optical scan machine). Other states are planning to stick with machines, but buy new ones that create a printed paper record of each voter's ballot. The voter can verify that the paper ballot is correct before submitting their vote, and then the machine deposits the record into a locked ballot box.

Barbara Simons, an advocate for paper-based voting at the nonprofit Verified Voting, said paper records are a form of "disaster recovery" when things go wrong with electronic voting machines. "You have the ability to recover from anything, whether it's a programming error, or a mistake, or hacking," she said.

Voting machine companies are cognizant of this trend, and practically all new voting machines on the market have paper records. "The vast majority of ES&S equipment provides a paper trail," said Teresa Paulsen, a spokeswoman for electronic voting machine vendor ES&S. The company has paperless machines in New Jersey, Georgia and South Carolina, but other models like the ExpressVote do have a paper record.

Watch this: Election hacking: What you need to know

Louisiana and Delaware both have funds approved by their legislatures and are choosing vendors to buy from. New Jersey lawmakers are considering several bills that would move the entire state to a paper ballot system.

South Carolina's Election Commission has requested $60 million from its legislature to fund the update. It's also facing a lawsuit that wants to force the change to voting with paper records. Whitmire, the commission's spokesman, declined to comment on whether the lawsuit would become moot if the legislature approves funding for new technology.

Georgia is the furthest back on the path toward paper, as its secretary of state, Brian Kemp, has faced several lawsuits over voter rights, one of which sought to force the state to move to a paper ballot system.

A federal judge ruled in September that it was too close to the midterms to force the state to change its technology, but the lawsuit will continue and could yet force the state to make the upgrade in the future. The judge, Amy Totenberg, warned Kemp's office that "further delay is not tolerable in their confronting and tackling the challenges before the State's election balloting system."

A spokeswoman for Kemp's office didn't respond to requests for comment.

Changing minds

Even before concerns about election interference were headline news, states were moving away from paperless systems. That's because arguments against paperless voting by Appel and other experts had an impact.

Smith, who went on to serve as Florida's interim secretary of state in the 2004 presidential election, said that's a good thing. He came to think his task force made the wrong call about the reliability of an electronic machine.

"Unfortunately, it did not have a paper trail," he said.

Florida still has some of the paperless voting machines it purchased after 2000 in precincts in four counties, but the state largely uses paper ballots that voters fill out by hand to be tabulated by a computer.

Like Florida, six other states have a mixture of voting technology that includes paperless machines. One of them, Kansas, has greatly reduced the number of paperless machines. And Pennsylvania is moving away from its paperless machines with an order from the secretary of state there requiring new machines with paper records to be in place by 2020. Travis County, Texas, where the state capital of Austin is located, is also planning to replace its paperless machines by 2019.

That's not to mention the states that have already turned completely away from paperless electronic voting machines, which include Iowa, Maryland and, just in time for the 2018 midterms, Virginia.

For Charlet, the Louisiana voter, the day when his home state makes the same move will be a welcome one. He'd be fine with electronic voting machines, he said, as long as there were also paper records.

"I'm a person who's very comfortable with electronics," he said. "But also I've seen the hackathons where they break into these machines in like 12 minutes, and that's terrifying."

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