Amid Democratic fears of hackers and Trump’s warnings about ‘cheating,’ some key states still rely on electronic voting machines that lack a paper trail.
Voters in four competitive states will cast ballots in November on electronic machines that leave no paper trail — a lapse that threatens to sow distrust about a presidential election in which supporters of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have raised fears about hackers tampering with the outcome.
The most glaring potential trouble spots include Pennsylvania, where the vast majority of counties still use ATM-style touchscreen voting machines without the paper backups that critics around the country began demanding more than a decade ago. It’s also a state where Trump and his supporters have warned that Democrats might “rig” the election to put Clinton in the White House, a claim they could use to attack her legitimacy if she wins.
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Similar paperless machines are used heavily in Georgia, where the presidential race appears unusually close, and to a much smaller extent in Virginia and Florida, both of which are phasing them out. Florida has almost entirely abandoned the electronic machines following a number of elections that raised red flags, including a close 2006 congressional race in which Democrats charged that as many as 16,000 votes went missing.
This time, in a year marked by charges that Russian-linked hackers have breached Democratic Party organizations and state election offices, the lack of a paper ballot record in key states poses two potential risks to public confidence in the U.S. electoral system: It creates the danger that someone could alter the results in ways that are nearly impossible to detect, security experts say, with no hard-copy record that would allow a manual recount. Beyond that, supporters of the losing candidate could simply refuse to accept the results — a response that Trump supporters are already encouraging if he loses.
“The risk of Trump saying the election was stolen or rigged is unacceptably high,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant who has harshly criticized Trump’s campaign strategy. “That there are several states that won’t have statewide printouts of votes would only add gasoline to the fire if he were to light the match.”
“With no paper trail you’re one calamity away from a treacherous situation,” said former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who unsuccessfully pursued a federal lawsuit in 2004 against the paperless voting system that many Florida counties operated at the time.
“We would not tolerate this lackadaisical system with our financial records,” added Wexler, who is now president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.
No easy remedy is available for November — it’s too late for states to make major changes to their voting technology, even if federal money were available to help. But security experts say the best long-term solution is for states to switch to optically scanned ballots, which produce electronic results but leave behind a paper record that can be recounted manually if questions arise.
Most states appear to be heeding that message: More than 70 percent of U.S. voters will cast paper ballots in November, according to the watchdog group the Verified Voting Project. Another alternative is for the electronic machines to produce a “voter-verified” paper record, similar to an ATM receipt, which election officials can store in case they’re needed for an audit.
Then again, it would take just one or two swing states with questionable results to create the kind of electoral chaos that Florida’s former punch-card ballots produced in 2000.
The result would be a “constitutional crisis,” Trump-allied political consultant Roger Stone said in an interview with a Breitbart editor in July, warning that supporters of the New York real estate magnate will stage “widespread civil disobedience” if they believe Clinton had cheated her way to victory.
“When I mean civil disobedience, not violence, but it will be a bloodbath,” Stone said. “The government will be shut down if they attempt to steal this and swear Hillary in. No, we will not stand for it. We will not stand for it.”
In a later radio interview, Stone said: “For anybody who thinks that election fraud is not common in this country, the voting machine today is merely a computer. And all computers can be rigged to have a predetermined outcome.”
Trump has repeatedly raised the specter of the November election being “rigged,” telling one Pennsylvania audience last month that “the only way we can lose” in the state “is if cheating goes on.” While he typically says the fraud would involve Clinton supporters voting multiple times, some conservative news outlets have also raised suspicions about tampering with the results themselves — pointing, for example, to 59 voting wards in Philadelphia that recorded zero votes for Mitt Romney in 2012. (Experts and fact-checkers have said that result was entirely plausible given the city’s demographics.)
“Paper trails are absolutely essential with current security technology,” said Alex Halderman, a computer science and engineering professor at the University of Michigan who has researched voting machine security. “It’s a serious problem that there are these states that don’t have any kind of auditable record.”
“Battleground states that don’t have a paper backup trail that’s easy to verify results should really rethink their approach to November,” veteran Republican political strategist Ron Bonjean told POLITICO in an email, “because they could be in for a serious rollercoaster ride of fraudulent claims.”
Defenders of the electronic machines — including their manufacturers and some state election officials — insist that they use security checks and other safeguards, including post-election digital audits, to ensure the integrity of the results. And hacking the machines would be much harder in practice than many security researchers’ studies assume, Virginia Elections Commissioner Edgardo Cortes said in an interview.
“You’d need physical access to equipment to be able to do anything to it,” said Cortes, who estimates that voting machines that lack paper records are still in use in about a third of his state’s localities. “It would be a substantial undertaking to try to do something like that.”
Paper records aren’t the only way to verify a vote total, said Merle King, a professor of information systems at Kennesaw State University who runs the school’s election center, which handles the logistics and auditing of Georgia’s elections.
“There is this notion that without paper there can be no meaningful audit. That’s an interesting assertion, but I believe it’s inherently incorrect,” King said, insisting that the state’s electronic tallies are reliable.
But outside security experts said those safeguards are inadequate to ensure public confidence in election results.
“By and large, the electronic voting machines aren’t able to stand up to graduate students, let alone the KGB, so I don’t have much faith in their ability to defend themselves against a nation state like Russia,” said Herb Lin, a Stanford University professor who sits on a federal cybersecurity commission that President Barack Obama created this year.
Lin added: “You only need to hack a few of them to shift an election one way or another. You could easily imagine, if you were paranoid … that somebody could just hack a few voting machines and [turn] an election.”
In Georgia, a historically conservative state where some recent polling averages have given Clinton a slim edge over Trump, all 159 counties use electronic voting machines without voter-verified paper trails. King said Georgia rejected the paper mechanism after a 2006 pilot project in three counties showed major problems, including privacy violations, jammed printers and thermal paper that didn’t fare well in the Georgia heat.
To determine how many competitive states relied on electronic voting machines without paper audit trails, POLITICO analyzed data from state election offices and the Verified Voting Project.
In Pennsylvania, one of this year’s top presidential battlegrounds, 50 of the state’s 67 counties exclusively use electronic voting machines without a “voter-verified” paper record, and an additional four use a combination of these machines and paper ballots, according to Verified Voting. Wanda Murren, the press secretary for Pennsylvania’s Department of State, declined to make any of the state’s election officials available for an interview to discuss how they verify their results. She later said could not answer questions submitted by POLITICO within the publication’s deadline.
A decade ago, touchscreen voting machines were a modern alternative to the unreliable voting technology of yore. Unlike with Florida’s old punch-card machines, for example, voters couldn’t mess up their ballots by voting for too many candidates or by failing to punch the holes all the way through — the source of the 2000 election’s infamous “hanging chads.”
But the electronic machines, and the lack of paper backups, soon brought a flurry of complaints — especially from Democrats.
President George W. Bush’s narrow reelection victory in 2004 prompted liberal conspiracy theories about swing states like Ohio, where the official results contradicted exit polls indicating that Democratic challenger John Kerry was leading. (The pollsters later acknowledged that their surveys had been flawed.) Without a paper backup, election officials had no hard copy they could check to verify that the results matched the ballots voters had cast.
Similar questions arose in Florida, in elections large and small. In one village election in Palm Beach County, a council candidate lost by four votes after the machines mysteriously recorded 78 blank ballots. In 2006, Democrats unsuccessfully sued over a House race in which more than 16,000 voters recorded no vote for either Republican winner Vern Buchanan or Democratic rival Christine Jennings. A judge blocked Jennings’ demand to view the machines’ source code, dismissing her arguments as “conjecture.”
None of these elections produced a full-blown crisis — Kerry quickly conceded the 2004 election, for example — but some states began moving back to paper. In Florida, then-Gov. Charlie Crist signed a law in 2007 that required paper voting records in almost all circumstances.
“It would seem to me some other states would be able to learn from what we did in Florida and the challenges we had,” said Crist, who’s now running for Congress.
Still, his state hasn’t done away with touchscreens entirely: They still account for as many as 2 percent of ballots cast because Florida law allows disabled people to request the use of the electronic machines, which are not equipped with a paper trail. Ron Labasky, general counsel for the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, said he didn’t know whether poll workers verified that requesters are actually disabled.
“You’re not really dealing with any significant number of votes that … would probably have a significant impact, unless you’re talking about a Bush versus Gore type of thing,” he said. (Bush won the state by 537 votes in the 2000 election.)
Among the reasons state and local governments keep their old voting machines: Cash.
“It’s time to replace a lot of these systems not just because of the paperless issue but because they’re getting too old,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University law school. “But the money just isn’t there.”
Cortes, the Virginia election commissioner, said his state “absolutely” wants federal help buying replacements. “Elections really are a shared responsibility between local, state and federal government,” he said. “The federal government should absolutely put in additional funding to assist in that process.”
Some additional federal money might become available if the Department of Homeland Security classifies state election systems as “critical infrastructure” — a designation reserved for structures deemed vital to the nation’s security, such as banks or nuclear power plants.
But otherwise, Washington is unlikely to lead the charge: In an interview, two leaders of the non-regulatory federal Election Assistance Commission deferred entirely to their local partners when asked whether states should require paper trails.
“I believe that local and state election officials are doing their best to ensure that every contingency is thought of,” commission Chairman Thomas Hicks said. “I have confidence in the system, that it’s going to function well on Election Day.”