“How New Voting Machines Could Hack Our Democracy”

Jennifer Cohn in NYRB:

The United States has a disturbing habit of investing in unvetted new touchscreen voting machines that later prove disastrous. As we barrel toward what is set to be the most important election in a generation, Congress appears poised to fund another generation of risky touchscreen voting machines called universal use Ballot Marking Devices (or BMDs), which function as electronic pens, marking your selections on paper on your behalf. Although vendors, election officials, and others often refer to this paper as a “paper ballot,” it differs from a traditional hand-marked paper ballot in that it is marked by a machine, which can be hacked without detection in a manual recount or audit. These pricey and unnecessary systems are sold by opaquely financed vendors who use donations and other gifts to entice election officials to buy them.

Most leading election security experts instead recommend hand-marked paper ballots as a primary voting system, with an exception for voters with disabilities. These experts include Professor Rich DeMillo of Georgia Tech, Professor Andrew Appel of Princeton University, Professor Philip Stark of the University of California at Berkeley, Professor Duncan Buell of the University of South Carolina, Professor Alex J. Halderman of the University of Michigan, and Harri Hursti, who is “considered one of the world’s foremost experts on the topic of electronic voting security” and is “famously known for his successful attempt to demonstrate how the Diebold Election Systems’ voting machines could be hacked.” These scholars warn that even a robust manual audit, known as a Risk Limiting Audit, cannot detect whether a BMD-marked paper ballot has been hacked. BMDs instead put the burden on voters themselves to detect whether such ballots include fraudulent or erroneous machine marks or omissions—even though studies already show that many voters won’t notice.

For this reason, many analysts have cautioned against acquiring these new ballot-marking machines for universal use, but election officials in at least 250 jurisdictions across the country have ignored their advice. Georgia (all one hundred and fifty-nine counties), South Carolina (all forty-six counties), and Delaware (all three counties) have already chosen these systems for statewide use in 2020. At least one or more counties in the following additional states have done the same: Pennsylvania (for the most populous county, plus at least four more), Wisconsin (for WaukeshaKenoshaChippewa and perhaps more), Ohio (for the most populous county and others), Tennessee (for at least ten counties), North Carolina (for the most populous county), West Virginia (for the most populous county and at least one other), Texas (for at least Dallas and Travis counties), Kentucky (for the most populous county), Arkansas (at least four counties), Indiana (for the most populous county and at least eight others), Kansas (for the first and second most populous counties), California (again, for the most populous county), Montana (at least one county, though not until 2022), and Colorado (for early voting). New York state has certified (that is, voted to allow) one such system as well.

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