Examining the Integrity of Voting Systems
Technology Policy Brief #73 | By: Steve Piazza | November 15, 2022
Header photo taken from: Brett Deering / Getty Images
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In 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). HAVA’s passage enhanced existing policy established under the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act, which created the National Clearinghouse for Information on the Administration of Elections.
The purpose of the newer legislation, which grew out of the contentious election of 2000, was to improve communication between election officials. It also transferred oversight from the Federal Election Commission to the newly formed Election Assistance Commission (EAC).
Amongst other things, HAVA fosters the ongoing commitment to improving technology that replaces outdated, unreliable balloting equipment. This includes adherence to its national elections guidelines addressing the development, certification, and verification processes of voting related operating systems.
It should be noted that EAC acts as a clearinghouse for information and not as a decision making body mandating which voting machines are to be used. That is left up to the states.
Following unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud during the 2020 election, voting equipment suddenly found itself at the center of intense scrutiny. Select images of antiquated and assailable equipment, controversial topics which had been brewing for years, suddenly motivated 2020 election result deniers to seize on the opportunity and attempt to lay blame on everything from the machines to the manufacturers themselves.
Use of electronic voting equipment dates all the way back to the original lever machines of the 1890s. More modern versions surfaced in the 1960s when punch cards and scanned paper ballots came into being. Since the 1970s, direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines and other paper ballot tabulation systems have become commonplace, though some hand counting still exists in a few locations.
The Voter-Verified (or Verifiable) Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) was also established and has become more widespread. To date, the use of mobile and other remote devices has been discouraged because of the difficulties in being able to generate a secure paper trail.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (CSL) local jurisdictions select and purchase voting systems, but before they are able to do so the system must go through a testing process to ensure that it meets state standards and in some cases federal standards as well.
Voting system vendors are responsible for ensuring that the system is tested—often through a federally accredited Voting Systems Test Laboratory or VSTL—to the required standards. Once testing is complete, approval is issued at the state level and local jurisdictions may purchase the system. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia use some aspect of the federal testing and certification program in addition to state-specific testing and certification of systems:
Recently, millions and millions of dollars have been spent on equipment in the United States that has resulted in a number of different configurations. These range from optical scan voting systems that read hand marked paper ballots to DREs providing a touchscreen that generates a paper printout which then must be fed through a scanner to tabulate.
Diagram taken from: Brennan Center for Justice
(click or tap to enlargen)
During the U.S. 2022 midterms, and largely because of reactionary changes in state legislation, nearly 70% of Americans used the optical scan method while almost 25% used a DRE of some kind. By contrast, 92% of countries worldwide use manual paper balloting, and only 10% use a mix of paper ballot and voting machines.
Voting technology world-wide has become much more advanced and is not as vulnerable as some may think, mostly because machines are not on the Internet, a common misconception, and most countries use them adhering to established standards of functionality based on functionality, security, privacy, usability and accessibility (NCSL).
For example Brazil has a nationwide system of voting that only uses voting machines. The entire country votes on one day using the same voting machines which tabulate a result at the end of the day. In Brazil’s most recent presidential election, where soon to be defeated President Jair Bolsonaro railed against the possibility of rigged machines without providing evidence, the election resumed only when it was agreed that the military step in and administer the final counts.
Though the military did report that vulnerabilities for malicious code do exist, it must be emphasized that no irregularities were proven, testimony to the country possessing one the best machine-based election systems in the world.
Photo taken from: Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images
One had to expect that the midterms would lead to claims of faulty machines. Almost immediately on election day, a number of minor complaints and attempts to perpetuate conspiracy theories surfaced, mostly on social media. These included:
- A computer snafu in Detroit resulted in duplicate numbered ballots.
- In Arizona, printer errors occurred in 60 locations and voting tabulators malfunctioned in another 44.
- A scanner malfunctioned in Mercer County, New Jersey.
- Some printers ran out of paper in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.
- In New York City, complaints over voting difficulties circulated after a voter inadvertently tried to use the AutoMark machine, an assistive ballot device for marking not tabulating.
Minor glitches like these were quickly resolved and there was no evidence of widespread fraud, just as in the 2020 election. Officials claim that any problems were from accidental human error and that the real culprit here is disinformation, a lingering symptom to be sure.
Voting machines still contain some vulnerability to being accessed improperly. But that’s why the popularity of the paper trail strategy is still growing, and that ongoing analysis of voting machine technology is vital. The United States as a whole has a mixed (machine and paper-based) system for recording the votes of citizens. The system seems to be working as witnessed by the last 2 election cycles that have been conducted with no large scale fraud.
Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available
Here is a link to the U.S. EAC page on everything pertaining to voting equipment across the country: https://www.eac.gov/voting-equipment/system-certification-process
The Verified Voting Foundation is a non profit organization advocating for election security in the use of technology: https://verifiedvoting.org/
Learn more about processes and equipment used in your state by clicking here: https://ballotpedia.org/Voting_methods_and_equipment_by_state