After 2016 Election Hacks, Some States Return to Paper Ballots

It's one of the ways states are trying to address growing concerns about the cybersecurity of voting.
by | September 12, 2017
Election workers counting paper ballots. (AP/M. Spencer Green)

Citing security concerns, the Virginia Board of Elections announced last Friday that it will stop using electronic voting machines in the state. The board’s action is the latest sign that state and local election agencies are trying to address growing concerns that the nation's election infrastructure is vulnerable to hacking. 

During the 2016 presidential election, Russia targeted voting systems in 21 states, according to U.S. officials. Though U.S. security officials say the cyberbreach did not impact vote-counting, they have warned of future, and more intrusive, attacks.

Some states -- including Virginia and Georgia, which recently announced a pilot program to use paper ballots -- hope eliminating the use of electronic ballots will reduce the threat of cyberattacks.

"Moving to paper is absolutely the happening trend," says Wendy Underhill, a program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Many state and local governments bought the Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines in the mid-2000s after Congress disbursed almost $3 billion to update voting equipment. The DREs became popular because they eliminated the potential for miscounting incomplete paper ballots from a punch-card machine, which is what led to the 2000 presidential election recount. But some computer scientists and voting rights groups now say election systems need paper ballots and regular audits to verify the accuracy of vote tallies.

Virginia is also one of two states -- the other is Iowa -- that passed requirements this year for post-election audits to compare paper ballots with electronic vote tallies. A handful of other states considered similar bills. But audits are only effective if election officials have a paper trail to verify against the computer counts.

Across the U.S., about a quarter of registered voters live in election districts with electronic ballots, but Virginia’s decision “could suggest that the DRE era in American elections is approaching its end,” wrote Doug Chapin, an elections expert from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, on his blog.

Five states -- Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey and South Carolina -- still use only electronic machines. Another handful of states have a mix of electronic and paper-based machines, depending on the local jurisdiction.

“I do hope that they’ll notice what happened in Virginia,” says Barbara Simons, president of Verified Voting, a national group that supports paper ballots and regular audits of election results. “No elected official wants to be accused of using insecure voting technology, especially with all of the questions raised in 2016.”

The threat of cyberhacks, however, is not the only problem facing election agencies.

Across the country, voting machines are reaching the end of their expected lifespan. Despite warnings of an “impending crisis” from federal officials and independent election experts, it has been years since the last significant update to the nation’s election infrastructure. Congress took action on the problem in 2002 by passing the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), but has done nothing to follow up since then. Meanwhile, the machines HAVA paid for a decade and a half ago are starting to fall apart, and most states and localities are finding it difficult to replace their equipment without an infusion of federal money.

"When I go to conferences where election administrators are present, [voting technology] is a key topic," says Underhill. "When are we going to replace our equipment? What are we going to replace it with, and how are we going to pay for it?"