How Worried Should Americans Be About Our Voting Technology?

By Kevin DelRocini

Since the advent of COVID-19, the issue on everyone’s mind regarding America’s 2020 presidential election has been mail-in voting. It is worth recalling, however, that about 22% of Americans still require some excuse for absentee voting, and another 57% will not have a ballot mailed directly to them unless they request it.[1]  In other words, as the 2020 election looms, it seems all but certain that a significant percentage of American voters will still be traveling to physical polling sites to cast their votes in November. Accordingly, one question that has faded into the background in recent months still bears considering: how safe are America’s voting machines?

Hacking is a serious concern for America’s election security, particularly because Russian hackers reportedly targeted voting systems in all 50 states during the country’s last presidential election.[2] Intuitively, the answer might seem to be to simply upgrade the voting technology infrastructure used around the country – which is a reasonable opinion, given that, as recently as the 2018 midterm elections, over 40 states used virtually obsolete voting technology.[3] However, many experts think that electronic voting systems are actually part of the problem, and that a reversion to paper-based voting is the safest path forward.[4]

Indeed, the expert consensus seems to be that, as Emily Goldberg of Politico put it, “[p]aperless voting machines are just waiting to be hacked in 2020.”[5] Digital direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting systems (i.e., paperless voting technologies)[6] are inherently vulnerable to hacking because hackers can access their data without leaving a paper trail, and, similarly, a reliable audit after the fact is virtually impossible.[7] Conversely, paper-based voting systems can be audited cheaply and easily, and a nationwide conversion to paper ballots would only cost about $370 million (in budgetary terms, a drop in the bucket).[8]

However, the latest trend in voting technology is the use of hybrid DRE systems that combine the perks of electronic voting – such as their convenience and friendly user interfaces[9] – with paper-based recording mechanisms to allow for post-election audits.[10] Such technologies have a Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail, or VVPAT, eliminating a major weakness of paperless DREs.[11] As of March 2020, only six states still use the paperless DREs that are highly exposed to hacking; the rest use either paper ballots, hybrid DREs, or some combination of the two.[12] It’s not perfect, but the news here is mostly good – which is fortunate, because nobody needs something else to worry about in 2020.

[1] Juliette Love, Matt Stevens and Lazaro Gamio, Where Americans Can Vote by Mail in the 2020 Elections, N.Y. Times, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/11/us/politics/vote-by-mail-us-states.html (last updated Aug. 14, 2020).

[2] David E. Sanger and Katie Edmondson, Russia Targeted Election Systems in All 50 States, Report Finds, N.Y. Times (July 25, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/25/us/politics/russian-hacking-elections.html.

[3] Conor Friedersdorf, An Embarassment of Glitches, The Atlantic (November 6, 2018), https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/11/voting-machines/575044/.

[4] See, e.g., Lawrence Norden, The Voting Technology We Really Need? Paper, The Atlantic (May 10, 2017), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/05/the-voting-technology-we-really-need-paper/524820/.

[5] Emily Goldberg, America faces a voting security crisis in 2020. Here’s why – and what officials can do about it., Politico (Aug. 16, 2019, 4:03 PM), https://www.politico.com/story/2019/08/16/voting-security-crisis-q-a-1466704.

[6] Lucas Ropek, America’s Love Affair with Paperless Voting Is Over. Here’s Why, Gov’t Tech. (Mar. 25, 2020), https://www.govtech.com/security/Americas-Love-Affair-with-Paperless-Voting-Is-Over-Heres-Why.html.

[7] Goldberg, supra note 5.

[8] Id.

[9] See id. (“[V]oters enjoy electronic voting machines because they’re familiar and convenient (they’re basically giant iPads).”).

[10] Ropek, supra note 6.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.