Russia attacked our election infrastructure and spread disinformation in the 2016 election, and continues to interfere in our elections. While there remains zero evidence that any votes in any election have been changed, Russia achieved its goal of dividing this country and reducing Americans’ confidence in their democracy. Russia’s efforts are likely to continue through 2020, and it is critical now more than ever that we come together to secure our democratic systems, upgrade outdated voting technology, and improve auditing ballots post-election, to ensure that every eligible American is able to cast their ballots accurately and with confidence.
There is a consensus among the intelligence community and cybersecurity experts that human-readable paper ballots, which can be audited by comparing them to the official tally of votes, are necessary to secure our elections. As a result, states such as Georgia are responding — moving toward paper-based voting systems for 2020 and planning for more robust audits to ensure the count is accurate, regardless of foreign interference.
There are basically two types of voting systems that accommodate paper ballots. The most common are hand-marked ballots, where the voter fills in a bubble or connects an arrow. These ballots are then fed into a scanner that is programmed to read those handmade marks as votes in particular races, and those votes are tabulated to determine the winner. These systems have some advantages – they are considered cheaper by some (at first, though the costs of printing ballots adds up over time, and the cost benefits, if any, shrink), and voters are familiar with them.
However, they also have some disadvantages – voters can find these ballots confusing and mark them incorrectly, creating ambiguity in voter intent and potentially leading to the ballot not being counted. Hand-marked paper is also not accessible for many voters with disabilities. For instance, voters with visual disabilities cannot read or find where to mark the page and voters with limited manual dexterity cannot handle the paper to mark it or deposit into a ballot scanner. Yet, every voter is guaranteed a private and independent ballot under federal law.
Another type of system is a ballot marking device, which utilizes a touchscreen interface for the voter to indicate their choices, and then prints a paper ballot consistent with those choices. The voter must then review the paper ballot and choose to cast it. The paper ballot has a human-readable summary of the voters’ selections that the voter can confirm, and sometimes includes a barcode which summarizes those choices and makes for easier and quicker counting.
Ballot marking devices can have significant advantages. They offer the ability to listen to the ballot through a set of headphones for voters who have difficulty reading the printed ballot. Ballot marking devices also offer increased font sizes, high contrast, and other features to make the appearance of the ballot easier to read based on an individual voter’s need. The devices also typically feature hookups for sip and puff devices, switches, or other types of personal assistive technology that people with physical disabilities may use to access electronic devices.
Whether a paper ballot is tabulated initially with a barcode, or by software programmed to read a hand-mark as a certain vote, we can and should audit those ballots to ensure that the human-readable portion of the ballot matches how the ballot was counted. No system is completely unhackable, as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security, and experts in elections and cybersecurity have concluded. Only through strong audits of the human-readable part of a ballot can we be sure the count was correct, regardless of whether that ballot was originally hand-marked or marked by a ballot marking device, with or without a barcode. Both must be audited to be secure, and both are secure when audited.
Each state should review what works best for its diverse population, considering not only security, but also accessibility, usability, and cost. Georgia has done this, understandably deciding on ballot marking devices, as they offer accessibility to all voters. As Georgia decides on a particular ballot marking device, it will need to continue weighing these factors, and be wary of vendors that exert undue influence or flaunt ethics requirements to sell their products. But the fact remains that ballot marking devices, like hand-marked paper ballots, can be secure and auditable.
Russia revels when we are divided on issues relating to protecting our democracy, when Democrat opposes Republican, or when those without disabilities support a “separate but equal” system of voting for those with disabilities. We should not help the Russians in their efforts. Election security is not a partisan issue, and we need not trade accessibility for security. When voting systems that produce paper ballots can provide an inclusive experience for all voters, and are coupled with robust audits, we can ensure vote counts are accurate, while protecting the rights of those with disabilities to vote independently.
David Becker is executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. He is an election administration and security expert who was a trial attorney in the voting section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
Michelle Bishop is the voting rights specialist for the National Disability Rights Network, where she provides training and technical assistance to NDRN’s network on voting access for people with disabilities.
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David Becker is executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. He is an election administration and security expert who was a trial attorney in the voting section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.Michelle Bishop is the voting rights specialist for the National Disability Rights Network, where she provides training and technical assistance to NDRN’s network on voting access for people with disabilities.