At least in one county, and at least for one election, hand marked paper ballots are making a comeback in Georgia. After a close election using all-electronic ballot machines generated a raft of conspiracy theories about the results, the Peach State has slowly begun rethinking its approach to ballot modernization. Cobb County will use optical-scan ballots instead in next week’s local elections, allowing for the existence of a paper trail.
Cobb County volunteered to serve as a test for the use of this system, which “felt like a test in school” for some early voters:
Because of a federal judge’s order, voters in Cobb County are hand-marking paper ballots. The ballots are then fed through a scanner and locked away in a ballot box.
Other voters agreed that it felt like a test in school.
Seals said it bolsters his trust in the system.
“It puts confidence in the process for people not to say it was hacked or there was something that is off about the process when you have two verifications — the electronic and the paper,” he said.
Cobb is the only county in Georgia to use these hand-marked paper ballots this fall, along with the new scanners. The county volunteered to test out an election like this.
Five other counties will use a new electronic system which generates a paper receipt at the end of a touchscreen process. That’s called the Dominion ImageCast voting system, which will purportedly improve election security with the paper track record. Georgia has to find a system for all of its 159 counties, and right now Dominion’s appears to have the inside track. The paper ballots which the machine produces will become the ballot of record, not a count inside the ballot machine itself, eliminating one point of failure and possibly one point of intrusion as well.
However, there is one potential issue with this — the use of a barcode generated by the machine:
The ballot includes both a machine-readable bar code and a human readable text display. The printed ballot does not include any information which could identify the voter.
It’s not clear whether the machine counts the individual marks on the ballot, as the optical-scan ballots do, or whether it uses the barcode created by the machine to decode voter choices. If it’s the latter, that still leaves an important opening for potential shenanigans, as the barcode creation will not be able to be reviewed by the voter — and all the Dominion tabulator will do is verify that there are no overvotes or empty ballots. The paper record will at least exist, but it won’t help if someone has hacked the barcode process and created a result outside of normal recount parameters.
If that seems a bit paranoid, read this essay from Medium’s Ryan North a year ago about all of the problems that computers can introduce when it comes to casting and tallying votes. The very nature of computer programming, North argues as a programmer, creates vast openings for mischief, sabotage, and fraud that would be practically impossible to fix after the fact, even with paper ballots produced by such machines:
And yet, we trust computers with all sorts of things. So, what gives? Why are we using these nightmare machines?
Well, for one thing, computers are really fun and convenient. And they’re practical in a lot of ways. Besides, a compiler hack can be tricky to pull off in practice: You’d need time and motivation to target someone. The truth is, there are many cases where you don’t need absolute trust in your computer: After all, it’s not the end of the world if someone hacks in and sees my pizza being delivered. Nobody cares enough to try to break it.
But voting is not one of those cases. …
Voting is a case where the outcome of a hack can have huge effects. Voting is also relatively easy to target (you know when and where it’s going to happen), and there’s a very strong motivation to alter the outcome. As easily as I could add that “ryaniscool” password, I could change the “add” command so that, when it was tallying votes, it added some extra for the party of my choice.
How much should I add? Honestly, at this point, it’s entirely up to me. Hence this conclusion: Online voting will never be safe. Computer voting will never be safe.
The only safe-ish way to vote with a computer is one in which a paper ballot is printed in sight of the voter, approved, and then stored in a ballot box. That way, if someone thinks the computer systems were compromised—if there’s any reason at all to suspect someone added the votes improperly—then there’s a paper trail. In other words, the computer adding up the votes is a convenience, nothing more.
The real vote, the real power, still lies in the paper ballot.
Be sure to read it all to learn why even the barcode generation would still be a potentially yuuuge entry point to fraud, assuming someone has enough time and energy to commit it. Systems that read the ballot markings themselves would eliminate that issue, and it’s not clear from Dominion’s website whether that’s the case on its newest generation of electoral machines. Even having the machine print out the ballots relies on the voter carefully checking to make sure that the paper record matches their choices on the touchscreens — and that step will probably get skipped by many who are unaware of its importance.
Cobb County, in this case, has the right idea. Rather than spend money on touchscreen voter entries and back-end printers, voters should hand-mark their ballots and have the machines only count those votes up. The optical-scan ballots used in most Minnesota counties are paired with systems sophisticated enough to check for overvotes and for significant extraneous marks, which allow voters an opportunity to start over rather than submit spoiled ballots.
Bells and whistles are great for gamers and for computer junkies. Except in extreme cases of disability and access, adding computers to any other step in this process adds risk and undermines voter control over his/her franchise. Hand-marked ballots are the core of voter security, transparency, and reliable integrity, and there is no financial or technical advantage in eliminating them.