The threat of foreign interference in our elections is very real, and is not going away. Special Counsel Robert Mueller made this clear when he testified before the House of Representatives last month that “[The Russians] are doing it (interfering) as we sit here.” The Senate Intelligence Committee and FBI agree that we can expect ongoing interference in our elections, including attacks on our election infrastructure, in 2020 and beyond.
In response, it’s more important than ever that states improve cybersecurity around election technology and ensure processes that will protect our votes. The good news is that around the country, and in Georgia in particular, great strides in election security have been made in just the last few months.
First, Georgia is joining several states, including Delaware, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, in replacing its paperless touchscreen voting machines by 2020. These machines are old, and fail to provide a paper ballot that can be audited to ensure that there’s been no tampering. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced late last month that new machines would be purchased and deployed in time for the 2020 elections. These “ballot marking devices” (or BMDs) allow all voters, including those with disabilities and language needs, to mark a ballot independently and easily, using a touchscreen, and once the ballot is complete, produces an official, human-readable paper ballot that can be independently counted, and audited for accuracy.
Beginning in March 2020, in time for the presidential primary, every Georgia voter will have the security of knowing they can verify and cast an auditable paper ballot, joining the estimated 90 percent of Americans who will do the same in 2020. And those ballots aren’t just “auditable,” they will in fact be audited, as the legislature required in the last session.
There have been concerns raised by a few activists about these devices, alleging that BMDs cannot produce an auditable record, and are more vulnerable than hand-marked ballots. These activists similarly fret that these ballots won’t be verified by the voters, and often have QR codes on them, and these could be manipulated. None of these concerns are supported by the evidence. As recently documented in a paper by computer science professor Dan Wallach of Rice University, a noted election technology expert, BMDs are fully auditable and can be at least as secure as hand-marked ballots.
Even with QR codes, the paper ballot is human readable, and it is the human readable portion that is checked during the audit. If a malicious actor sought to corrupt the codes or any other part of the ballot, it would be discovered in the audit, and the human readable portion of the ballot will be the official ballot. And as noted by Prof. Wallach, it is highly likely a sufficient number of voters will verify their ballot, and there are tools election officials will use to maximize verification, including good signage (required by Georgia law), live audits, and reminders from poll workers.
In addition, BMDs have several advantages. BMDs allow voters with disabilities and other needs to mark a ballot independently, on ballots that can be verified and audited, whereas many such voters cannot vote independently with a pen. BMDs also eliminate the possibilities – experienced in significant numbers in states where ballots are marked in pen – of a voter invalidating their own vote, by voting more than allowed in any race, and reduce the possibility of forgetting to vote in an important race or mismarking a ballot so that the counting machines don’t recognize the vote.
Thus, Prof. Wallach, along with many other election technology experts, has concluded that “BMDs give us the security benefits of paper with the accessibility benefits of computers.”
And for those who still, despite all the evidence, prefer to mark a paper ballot by pen, Georgia, like the majority of states, has the answer. Every registered voter in Georgia can request an absentee ballot by mail, without any excuse, enabling them to personally mark that ballot. Yes, the odds that the hand-marked ballot will contain errors is higher, but in Georgia, all voters have a choice.
Over the next several months, the state will be working with local election officials and other experts to implement rules that will ensure effective audits, accessibility, and strong security. This process began earlier this month with a roundtable I helped host with cybersecurity and election experts from around the state and the country. Beginning next March, voters in Georgia will experience an easy and accessible process, and can vote knowing their ballot is more secure than ever.
David Becker is executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research in Washington, D.C., a nonpartisan non-profit working to improve election access and security. He has been a senior trial attorney with the U.S. Justice Department’s Voting Section, where he oversaw voting law enforcement in several states, including Georgia.
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