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Advocates Say Paper Ballots Are Safest

Margaret Newkirk

Bloomberg Business Week

Aug 10, 2018

They’re also the cheapest and fastest way to address vulnerable systems before the midterms.

Electronic voting machines in an Atlanta polling place. PHOTOGRAPHER: ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/BLOOMBERG

In June, voting security advocate Marilyn Marks bought four used optical scanners online from the Canadian government for about $2.50 apiece. Her purchase was meant to make a point: The state of Georgia doesn’t have to spend a lot to replace computerized voting machines considered the most vulnerable in the U.S. And it could do so in time for the midterm elections.

Marks’s advice: Don’t listen to lobbyists for vendors pushing unnecessarily fancy and expensive voting equipment. Go back to paper ballots. Buy cheap used scanners to read them. Get it done now. “The Department of Homeland Security has said it. Every cyber expert says it,” she says. Voting machines like Georgia’s “are a national security risk.”

As government officials warn of continuing cyberattacks intended to disrupt U.S. elections, Georgia is among 14 states heading into Election Day using touchscreen, computerized machines that don’t meet federal security guidelines because they produce no paper record—so voters can’t verify their choices and officials can’t audit the results.

Such machines are used statewide in Georgia, Delaware, Louisiana, New Jersey, and South Carolina. They’re also in at least some polling stations in nine other states: on the ground in 160 of 254 Texas counties and making up almost half of the machines—serving 83 percent of voters—in Pennsylvania, a key swing state. Despite the risks, only Virginia has replaced the paperless machines since the 2016 presidential election; some states moved away from them before 2016, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

A fight between voter security advocates and vendors derailed legislation to replace Georgia’s equipment early this year. Vendors were pushing for new electronic equipment that uses bar codes to record votes. Voting security advocates want paper ballots and scanners. “It’s absolutely the safest way,” Richard DeMillo, a cybersecurity professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, says of using paper. “All this fancy stuff—you are talking to a computer scientist, and it breaks my heart to say this—but it just drives up the cost and doesn’t add anything.”

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats recently cautioned that “the warning lights are blinking red” for further Russian cyber interference. Allegations surfaced in late July that Russians tried to infiltrate the computer network of Senator Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat facing a tough Republican challenge.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate for governor, has been dismissive: In 2016, when then-Department of Homeland Security head Jeh Johnson offered to help states test the security of their systems, Kemp declined. He mocked Russian hacking fears and accused Democrats of trying to federalize state elections. Still, while his office contends there’s no evidence that any machine in Georgia has ever been hacked, he supports replacing the touchscreen machines with equipment that has a voter-verified paper trail, according to spokeswoman Candice Broce. The real obstacle, Broce says, is timing—switching to scanned paper ballots by November would be chaotic. Marks’s group, the Coalition for Good Governance, asked a U.S. District Court on Aug. 3 to force the state to make the change before the midterms. The court ordered both sides to address the potential disruption of doing so.

States including Georgia are just beginning to tap $380 million in election security funds that Congress made available earlier this year. Georgia’s $10.3 million share, which Kemp requested in July, isn’t enough to replace the paperless machines, according to both Broce and Marks. Georgia would need three times as much to buy even the cheapest new equipment, Marks says. Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos criticized the funding level in a July letter to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, calling it “not remotely sufficient” to replace the state’s machines.

Last month, Republicans in Congress squashed a Democratic effort to double the federal funding, saying states hadn’t spent the earlier appropriation and didn’t need more. House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions called Democrats’ push “a shrewd political shenanigan that has no merit.”

BOTTOM LINE - Georgia is one of several states using touchscreen, computerized machines that don’t meet federal security guidelines; a lawsuit is trying to force the state to adopt paper ballots before Nov. 6.