The primary mission of state and local election administrators is to ensure the security and integrity of our elections — that the vote you cast is the vote that gets counted. To ensure this, some have called for a return to hand-marked paper ballots. But hand-marked paper ballots won’t get us there. Hand-marked paper ballots are not secure and are highly vulnerable to tampering.
That said, paper ballots can play an important role in elections by providing an auditable and verifiable back-up to electronic voting systems. Indeed, paper ballot back-up to electronic votes play a critically important role in election security and auditing. Understanding the difference is crucial because a return to hand-marked paper ballots alone would put the integrity of our elections at much greater risk than electronic voting that produces auditable paper trails.
The fragility and abuse of hand-marked paper ballots have a long history of contributing to weaker election systems that are easier to attack and are riddled with costly problems. Paper ballots can be destroyed, tampered with, manipulated, intercepted, lost, forged and pre-marked. They are susceptible to human error. In fact, all known cases of election fraud occurred in paper-only systems.
Moreover, paper ballots lack flexibility in usability (font size, color, layout, etc.), impeding access for individuals who are not able to mark and handle paper. Perhaps most important, hand-marked ballots introduce the inherent problem of determining voter intent. The best-known case of unclear voter intent was the famous “hanging chads” fiasco in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.
On the other hand, paper back-up to electronic voting directly enhances and supports election integrity by ensuring auditability. Data integrity is best accomplished with multiple records of the same data on multiple storage media so they can be verified and audited against each other.
This is not an untried concept. It is a mature solution pioneered 15 years ago, and it is still one of the core principles underpinning election security, as evidenced by more than 4.6 billion votes processed with zero security breaches in electronic systems using paper-ballot backup. The same cannot be said for hand-marked paper ballots.
With a modern electronic voting machine, voter intent is 100 percent determinable because electronic marking removes the guesswork that often comes with hand-marked ballots. In most cases, the problems associated with hand-marked paper ballots — such as stray marks, incorrect marks or poorly marked ballots — disappear. Multiple redundant storage and digital signatures ensure that electronic records have not been tampered with and are from authentic sources, and paper ballot backup provides auditability.
Fear among public officials that votes won’t be recorded reliably and verifiably using electronic equipment have been exploited by critics. These individuals are not familiar with the latest advancements in elections technology. Confusing and misleading information from various paper-only advocates has given rise to misunderstandings about the security, redundancy, auditability, and ease of use of today’s electronic voting systems. These systems meet the needs and desires of the electorate and the legal requirements under the Help America Vote Act.
Modern state-of-the-art voting machines and election management software have multiple built-in layers of security, are not connected to the internet and are specifically designed to not be accessible via the internet. Nonetheless, some have suggested that voting machines are still vulnerable when they receive programming from memory cards or removable media that could be infected. This potential is why, per cyber-hygiene best practices, election officials should always ensure that removable media are cleaned using sanitizers and similar equipment.
This provides assurance that the removable media does not contain any malware. This is the same strategy and process the U.S. military employs to maintain known and trusted supplies of clean media. This straightforward and effective practice is far less cumbersome, inefficient, time-consuming and costly than protecting paper ballots
As we’ve seen in other sectors, no one working on data integrity believes that storing data solely on paper is an appropriate or effective solution. Banks, governments, hospitals, critical control systems and other critical infrastructure long ago moved to digital and electronic systems.
We need to ensure that we test, update and retest our voting systems, and include reliable third-party security and accessibility testing as standard procedure. And we should continuously evolve security protocols to assure continuing trust in and auditability of voting systems.
Returning to sole reliance upon anachronistic, cumbersome, insecure and mistake-prone hand-marked paper ballots would dramatically diminish election accuracy, security and timeliness. However, paper ballot backups as part of an auditable system of counter checks add efficiency, security and integrity to election systems.
Using advanced, secure, auditable electronic voting technology protects voting integrity, provides better transparency of results and ensures that people with disabilities have full and equal access to the ballot box.