people voting (Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock.com)

Survey: Half of paperless voting machines found in 3 states

Direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, which record votes in their computer memories and have no paper backup of ballots, have been  criticized by election security experts who say they pose a unique threat because if compromised, there is no paper trail that officials can audit to detect discrepancies and determine an accurate vote count.

Such machines are not inherently more vulnerable to being hacked than other types of voting equipment, information security experts say, and some have been equipped with a voter-verifiable paper audit trail that allows voters to verify that their vote was recorded correctly and are used for  post-election audits and recounts.

In fact, more than 90% of jurisdictions use paper ballots or voting machines that produce paper records, according to the latest Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS) released June 27.

The survey showed that 202,599 of the nation's 334,422 voting machines used in the 2018 election were DRE machines. About one third (67,535) of those machines had paper backups in place, but 135,064 did not. Of the DRE machines used without voter verified paper trails in 2018, more than half are found in just three states -- Pennsylvania, Georgia and Texas.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolfe (D) ordered all counties to buy new machines with auditable paper trails in February and is currently negotiating with Republicans in the state legislature for a funding package to cover a portion of the cost, estimated to be around $125 million. Texas and Georgia officials have thus far refused to target their paperless DRE machines for removal, and voting groups in Georgia have taken the state to court to force the issue.

Who pays and how those costs get split between the federal government and states remains subject to debate. State election lobbying groups have argued that if Congress wants state officials to replace paperless DRE machines, they should provide federal funding to do so. Congress made a down payment in 2018 in the form of releasing $380 million in leftover Help America Vote Act grants to states, but the amount awarded to each state was based on per capita, not need, and there were no mandates that the money be spent for election security or to replace voting machines.

That pot of money is considered a fraction of the estimated costs required to completely wean the country off paperless voting machines, let alone tackle other needs like increased security trainings for poll workers, post-election audits and cybersecurity updates to voter registration systems, e-pollbooks and other election software systems.

The Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill passed by the House June 26 contains $600 million in new election security grants that mandate hand-marked paper trails for newly purchased voting machines along with risk limiting postelection audits, but Republicans have said Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is refusing to bring election security bills to the floor, and the White House opposes the new funds in the House bill, calling them "unrequested."

"States have only begun to expend the $380 million received for election security grants in FY 2018," the White House wrote in a statement of administration policy on the House funding bill. "Additional support from the federal government should only be provided once existing funds have been deployed."

House Democrats also passed a standalone bill June 27 that would inject $1.3 billion in election security grant funding to states through 2026, which McConnell has called "a non-starter" in the Senate.

Thirty-six states have laws in place requiring post-election audits, but only a handful conduct risk-limiting audits, widely considered to be the most accurate way to determine if a machine's electronic vote tallies match up with those from corresponding paper ballots. Jennifer Morrell, an election validation consultant for the non-profit group Verified Voting, said that the new EAC survey contains a rich dataset about how voting is conducted at the individual state and county level that election officials can use to make their system more friendly to risk-limiting audits.

"Understanding through the EAVS survey these different types of methods of casting a ballot and how its processed really helps us determine the resources and the guidelines and the things that we need to do to help election officials move to that more robust audit," Morrell said at a June 27 event hosted by EAC.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at djohnson@fcw.com, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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