Machine Politics: How America casts and counts its votes
Misinformation online and false claims of election fraud by former President Donald Trump and his allies have sharply eroded public trust in the integrity of U.S. elections. Trump’s camp has zeroed in on electronic vote-tabulating systems, falsely alleging that they were somehow rigged against him. How Americans vote — and the equipment they use — varies widely, and some methods are more vulnerable to efforts to shake that trust. Heading into the 2022 midterms, election experts say the move in most states to hybrid voting systems – paper ballots tallied by electronic machines – could give voters greater confidence.
The United States, like most countries, uses paper ballots to vote. In most cases, voters mark the ballots by hand. In other cases, voters can make their choice on a machine called a ballot marking device, which then prepares a paper printout for submission.
The extent to which voters use digital technology to cast their ballots has shifted over time. Paperless electronic voting, touted for its ability to tally votes quickly and accurately, largely decreased in popularity in the United States and European countries from the mid-2000s onward. Countries have turned to paper as the most secure way to audit their elections and detect potential vote tampering. To be sure, machines are still integral to the election process even when votes are cast on paper ballots. Optical scan tabulators count the results.
America’s complicated relationship with paper voting
The United States invested hugely in paperless electronic voting machines after the contested presidential election between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush in 2000 shook election officials’ confidence in paper ballots. In the weeks after the election, local officials in Florida spent their days looking closely at tiny pieces of paper called “chads” that were still attached to ballots. In counties that used punch-card voting machines, voters would punch out these paper chads with a stylus to indicate their chosen candidate.
If the chad was completely punched out from the ballot, a counting machine could tally the vote. The conundrum for election officials arose when the chad was said to be hanging, or still partly attached to the ballot. That raised concerns about whether the voter’s intent had been accurately recorded.
Anxious to avoid a repeat of the confusion caused by the hanging chad fiasco, the U.S. government set aside $3 billion, which many states used to buy direct recording electronic (DRE) machines, in which votes are made electronically, typically without a paper trail. Ironically, a move that was aimed at shoring up voter confidence in how elections were conducted, ultimately led to growing doubts as potential security vulnerabilities were publicized, misinformation exploded on social media and politicians like Trump falsely claimed that voting and tallying machines were being manipulated and did not accurately reflect how people had voted.
By 2006, the share of registered voters using paperless machines had surged, though hand-marked paper ballots that are later scanned by electronic tabulators remained the most popular. For the next decade, about a third of all votes were cast on DRE machines.
Concerns with paperless voting among election officials and the public had been swirling since the early 2000s, when researchers released a number of studies on the security vulnerabilities of these machines. These concerns escalated in the 2016 presidential election, an “inflection point” in America’s voting machine history, according to Derek Tisler, counsel with the Elections and Government program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy think-tank.
In 2016, Russia attempted to use social media campaigns to divide Americans by race and extreme ideology and influence the election. Russian hackers scanned voter registration systems for vulnerabilities seeking to collect information on American voters. U.S. government inquiries found no evidence that the results of the election had been altered or compromised, but election officials increasingly saw the need to back up election results in the event that electronic machines were ever breached.
“The biggest priority was to say if something went wrong, we need to be able to identify that something went wrong, and we need to be able to correct it and ultimately make sure that we got the results correct, and that’s where more and more we saw the shift back to paper,” Tisler said.
Counties in six states still use paperless voting machines
Most of these counties lie in solidly Republican or Democratic congressional districts, which decreases the likelihood of a contested election.
However, there are six congressional districts that are considered swing districts and are using electronic voting machines without paper records: the second, third, fifth and seventh districts in New Jersey; Indiana’s first district; and Texas’s 15th district.
In the event of a recount, there would be no way to verify the results recorded by the machine.
A new focus on paper… but machines are not going anywhere
Election experts say paper ballots help to secure elections because they allow voters to verify how they voted and officials to cross-check results in post-election audits.
In 2006, about 31% of registered voters were living in areas that used paperless electronic voting. For the November midterms, that number is expected to dwindle to about 5%, according to data from Verified Voting.
The push toward paper does not mean that machines are disappearing from voting places. Almost all still use machines to tabulate the paper ballots. Trump allies falsely claimed that tabulators in some 2020 races were manipulated and are pushing for the machines to be ditched entirely and for the ballots to be counted by hand, which election officials say is a logistical non-starter. The claims have been thoroughly investigated and debunked.
Still, claims of election fraud have sown widespread mistrust in elections, with a recent ABC/Ipsos poll finding only about 20% of the American public is very confident in the election system.
Voting equipment companies like Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic have sued Trump’s allies as well as pro-Trump media personalities and networks over false claims of election fraud, including one allegation that their machines flipped votes from Trump to Biden. Those suits are ongoing.
Jones, the retired computer science professor, said he has seen no evidence of hackers breaking into the electronic machines that voters use, though it is possible, and these machines have been hacked in controlled laboratory settings.
Even where the machines are simply counting paper ballots, there is a potential for hacking since the vote scanners are computers, Jones said. However, having a paper trail is a form of insurance.
“The point of using paper is to have a chain of evidence you can use to test the correctness of the count,” Jones said. “The point of using scanners is to mechanize the count so you avoid as many clerical errors as possible.”
An aging infrastructure
Local governments are gradually replacing election equipment as funding allows, but some voting districts are still using electronic equipment from more than a decade ago. The main concern is not necessarily the age of the machines but whether spare parts are still available.
“The trouble is, the laptop computer marketplace from which many of the components for these machines came is predicated on the idea that people will throw away their old laptops fairly frequently,” Jones said. “What you end up doing is cannibalizing parts from working equipment to keep other equipment working.”
Fewer functioning machines can lead to long lines and other delays at polling locations in the more than 500 jurisdictions that are still using equipment that was first deployed in 2012 or earlier.
Machines past their prime
A related concern is the issue of machines that are no longer produced by their manufacturers. Not only are spare parts in short supply for these machines, but they are also not required to meet the same security and accessibility requirements as new machines are.
The vulnerabilities in America’s election infrastructure are clear, but figuring out how to fix them — and who should pay for it — is less clear. No one knows for sure how much is spent on elections because funding is shared at the federal, state and local levels.
Over the past four years, Congress has appropriated $800 million to states for election security. It also appropriated additional funds for expenses related to running elections during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the federal government’s first major investment in elections since the early 2000s.
However, federal funding flowing down to local jurisdictions is insufficient in many cases, said Matthew Weil, the executive director of the Democracy Program at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank. He said federal funding in an election year is too late because the purchasing process in states can often take a few years. Also, money tends to be appropriated for short-term needs instead of long-term capital expenses.
Because money is tight and all voting methods have their shortcomings, “everything’s a tradeoff,” he said.
“Do you want to have some errors, or do you want to have perfect intent?” he said. “Do you want to have full auditability? Do you want people to be able to count it fast?”
Data is current as of July 18, 2022. The maps display data at the county level (including parishes, in the case of Louisiana). They also display the areas that the U.S. Census Bureau designates as independent cities. Jurisdictions in which data were available at the sub-county level are omitted from the map. This includes all jurisdictions in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin, as well as the cities of Bloomington, Chicago, Danville, East St. Louis, Galesburg and Rockford in Illinois and Kansas City in Missouri.
ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, European Parliament, Election Data Services, Verified Voting, The Cook Political Report, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Election Assistance Commission
Feilding Cage and Ross Colvin