February 07, 2018

Experts support paper ballots to cure e-voting problems

Voter, beware: If your state doesn’t have paper ballots to back up computer scanners on Election Day, your vote may not be counted as you intended.That was the conclusion of a panel of experts Friday at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Vancouver. The discussion, titled “Democracy on the Edge: Security, E-voting and the Challenge of Verifying the People’s Choice,” focused on the problems of computer voting systems.

Marian Schneider, president of the non-profit group Verified Voting, presents at the ABA Midyear Meeting program “Democracy on the Edge: Security, E-voting and the Challenge of Verifying the People’s Choice”

It began with a video clip from the 2006 HBO documentary “Hacking Democracy,” which told the story of American citizens exploring irregularities with e-voting systems in 2000 and 2004. Producer Russell Michaels, a British investigative journalist, said he went into the documentary with several questions.

“Why has America handed its vote count to secret software programming private companies?” he asked. “Who owns and controls those companies? And lastly, what can we do to prove what these machines are really doing?”

The documentary demonstrated how e-voting systems could be hacked even if the voting machines are not connected to the internet. “We found that there were more terrible flaws than anybody had guessed,” Michaels said.

The solution, panelists agreed, is paper ballots – even though they got an undeservedly bad rap after the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida, with its infamous “hanging chads” and “butterfly ballots.”

“Basically, we can thank Florida for the fact that we use computers extensively in our voting systems,” said Barbara Simons, a computer scientist and past president of the Association for Computing Machinery. To many people, Simons said, the 2000 election in Florida boiled down to a simple equation: Paper is bad, computers are good.

“Of course, it’s not that paper is bad. There is nothing wrong with paper,” Simons said. “What was bad was the way paper was used in those punch-card systems.”

After that election, America was flooded with computer voting systems, especially touch-screen machines that sometimes have calibration issues that produce incorrect votes. Those machines, introduced in the early 2000s, are still in use in some states. Many election officials would like to replace them, but can’t afford it, Simons said.

“If you think about it, do you know anyone who has a computer from those days?” she asked. “And yet we’re voting on machines that are basically computers that are really archaic and not being maintained.”

Internet voting is no better, Simons said, even though Ontario, Canada, has widespread internet voting in many of its municipalities.

Today, one of the greatest threats to American elections and voting technology comes from Russia, said Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that promotes accurate, transparent and verifiable elections.

“A nation-state with unlimited resources has been proven to have attempted to meddle in our elections,” Schneider said. “And they probably have emboldened other bad actors. And the consensus in the intelligence community is that they will be back.”

The panel agreed: Paper ballots would protect voters. Even if computers count the ballots, it’s important to have a verifiable paper trail to support the machines, they said.

Schneider cited two recounts in state legislative races in 2006 and 2016. In each case, she said, the margin of victory was 24 votes and local officials hand-counted the paper ballots. That satisfied all parties involved.

“That’s what we need to get to,” Schneider said. “Where the winners understand that they won and the losers accept that they have lost.”

The panel was moderated by Andrew Grosso, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and former federal prosecutor. U.S. District Judge Virginia Covington of Tampa, Fla., explained how citizens can challenge election procedures and how courts consider those challenges. The program was sponsored by the ABA Criminal Justice Section