Before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) took over as the single biggest threat to the 2020 presidential election, the security of state voting infrastructure was chief among the concerns held by many elected officials. 

Since 2016, foreign interference in American elections has been a critical concern, and direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting systems — or paperless voting machines — are increasingly viewed as a critical target that foreign adversaries might exploit.

Touchscreen and electronic, the machines were once considered the most efficient, credible means to tabulate elections, but over the years many facets of them — in particular their lack of an auditable paper trail — have led experts to warn against their adoption. Hackers could gain entry, change votes and sway elections, cyberprofessionals fear.

Here's a look at how DREs became such a prominent fixture of U.S. voting infrastructure, and why they have since seen a precipitous decline in use as states ditch them for old-fashioned paper. 

Problems: Then and Now

The reason governments originally turned to paperless voting machines was, ironically, the same one that is now causing them to replace them: election interference, said Charles Stewart, director of the MIT Election Lab, which studies the history and evolution of voting systems and administration.

The predecessor of the DRE, the mechanical lever machine, was borne out of a need by governments to restrain the rampant illegal activity surrounding U.S. elections during the 1800s, Stewart said. During this period, it wasn’t uncommon for bands of hired thugs to kidnap or murder poll workers as they trekked between polling places and municipal courthouses, and fraud — like ballot theft and box stuffing — occurred frequently.

That's why lever machines, which were paperless and automated, and — with a weight of some 875 pounds — could not be easily carried away or manipulated, were built to be corruption proof, said Stewart: “The reason counties did it that way is because of the fraud and violence that was rampant around polling places, especially around cities during the 19th century,” he said.

Lever machines became the mainstay of elections and maintained that status for much of the 20th century. This stayed true until around 2000, when technological shifts, lobbying from interest groups, and the scandal over the U.S. presidential results in Florida helped catalyze a large-scale shift to electronic forms of voting.   

The constitutional crisis in Florida, where older forms of voting were faulted, spurred the subsequent passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, which represented a big push by the federal government to modernize state voting systems. HAVA banned the use of punch-cards and mechanical lever machines in federal elections, while providing millions of dollars to counties to replace them with upgraded systems.

Like the lever machines of the 19th century, the DREs of the early 2000s were viewed as a fraud mitigation mechanism, and their sales to states spiked in the ensuing years. Meanwhile, similarly automated technology, like optical scanners, took over most of the rest of national voting infrastructure.

As a result, between 1980 and the mid-2000s, the U.S. saw a massive shift from almost all of its counties using mechanical lever machines, paper ballots and punch cards, to a majority using optical scanners and DREs. By 2012, people bid farewell to the lever machine officially, and by the 2016 presidential election, DREs "dominated" large parts of the eastern and southern U.S., according to the MIT Lab.

The love affair with these new machines was short lived, however.

A Cyberproblem 

Almost immediately after their widespread adoption, there was a severe backlash against DREs by many in the computer science field.

One of those early critics was Rebecca Mercuri, a computer scientist, who is known for her "Mercuri Method," being an early proponent of auditable paper trails for totally electronic voting equipment. Speaking with Government Technology, Mercuri said that concerns over DREs by people like herself went back all the way to the '90s when governments were still just beginning to introduce them.

These criticisms mostly fell on deaf ears, she said.

Since then, Mercuri's concerns have been reiterated by many national security professionals and researchers. During U.S. Senate hearings regarding the 2016 hacking of the U.S. presidential election, computer science expert J. Alex Halderman said both DREs and optical scans could be exploited by foreign actors. Halderman said he and many of his peers had easily hacked into DREs over the years and knew techniques that could sway elections. 

"I know America's voting machines are vulnerable because my colleagues and I have hacked them repeatedly as part of a decade of research studying the technology that operates elections and learning how to make it stronger," Halderman said, in his testimony. "We've created attacks that can spread from machine to machine, like a computer virus, and silently change election outcomes. We've studied touchscreen and optical scan systems, and in every single case we found ways for attackers to sabotage machines and to steal votes. These capabilities are certainly within reach for America's enemies."

However, Stewart, like a lot of academics, is less than impressed with concerns about large-scale, coordinated interference.

“Whenever I hear these scenarios it always sounds like really interesting science fiction,” he said, explaining that hackers trying to intrude at such a large scale would need "not only a lot of local knowledge about individual elections but would require a degree of physical access to a large number of machines of the sort that is highly unlikely."

The argument against these hypotheticals takes into account the deeply decentralized nature of U.S. election administration, in which the nation's many individual counties are responsible for conducting local votes, making a coordinated "hacking" a huge challenge.

Where We're Headed: Two Perspectives

Voting systems now seem to be trending towards a combination of automation and traditional paper.

“The trends are tending to go towards the ideal,” said Stewart. “So I can imagine that in 2024 we would no longer be seeing paperless DREs...You need paper in order to conduct post-election audits. A number of states are moving in that direction. Colorado was a real pioneer, and other states will be moving that way.” 

Hybrid digital-paper solutions, DREs with a Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), are becoming the norm for the communities that insist on using such machines. They are still touchscreen but print out ballots that verify a voter's selection. Georgia, for instance, just spent $107 million to purchase such devices.

Only six states now have communities that deploy DREs without a VVPAT, while a majority deploy a combination of paper ballots and DREs with VVPATs. 

Mercuri, meanwhile, isn't so inspired by these machines, and favors a simple return to paper.

“What I believe is that we need to have well-designed, ergonomic paper ballots,” she said. “You want to design them in such a way that you’re not making stray marks or mistakes or anything like that, and that it’s very clear what you have to do.” These systems would be significantly more affordable for most localities, Mercuri remarked, as studies have shown that hand-marked paper ballot systems generally cost about half the price of more advanced systems

In addition, there are a number of common-sense steps that could be implemented that would improve transparency and lessen the opportunity for fraud, she said.

Ballot counting is one such area. Risk-limiting audits (RLA) are a growing trend, one Mercuri doesn't look favorably upon, either. With RLAs, a statistical sample of ballots are counted in an effort to validate the entire election. Mercuri says this doesn't go far enough, and that it wouldn't be difficult for the U.S. to publicly count all ballots by hand, as is done in numerous other countries.

Instead of relying on closed-door counts involving precinct officials, public showings could be used, where the results are projected live onto a large, public screen. Counters could be drafted for this task in much the same way that people are picked for jury duty, she said.

“You can do this whole thing in a couple of hours at the precinct right after the election. It should be open to the public ... people should be able to see what’s going on," she said. "That is how Canada does their elections, that’s how the U.K. does it. It’s been going on for years.”

Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.