It is richly ironic that it took a fake election scandal to finally convince lawmakers and election officials in Mississippi of the real potential for a rigged or botched election.
Thanks to Donald Trump’s false claims that Joe Biden and the Democrats stole the 2020 presidential election, Mississippi Republicans decided to finally act and pass a law this year that will require all counties in Mississippi by 2024 to have a system in place that provides a paper backup to electronically tabulated vote totals.
Mississippi is one of just six states where a significant number of voters still only have access to paperless machines. For those Mississippi voters, approximately 1 out of 3, the only record of their choices is what’s recorded on the electronic memory card inside the voting machines themselves. That includes Leflore and Carroll counties.
The percentage, though, is a marked improvement from just a few years ago, when Mississippi counties — with the misguided consent of both the U.S. Justice Department and the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office — began removing en masse the balky external printers with which the touchscreen machines were initially equipped.
Verified Voting is a nonpartisan organization that maintains a database on the election equipment used in every U.S. county. According to its records, 75% of Mississippi voters in 2016 lived in counties where the balloting was done on touchscreen machines without a voter-verified paper trail. By 2020, that figure was down to 56%. It’s projected to drop to 34% by this year’s November elections. The new law should bring the figure down to zero in a couple more years.
The irony of this is that for years, local and state officials in Mississippi of both parties pooh-poohed the warnings about the vulnerability of the state’s touchscreen-only system. They were unmoved by the demonstrations of election security experts of how easy the machines could be rigged by an insider to produce a result opposite of what the voters intended. They did not take seriously the possibility of votes being lost that could not be recaptured should any of these aging machines crash on Election Day. Some counties continued to replace touchscreen machines that broke down with the same vulnerable paperless equipment.
What finally grabbed the attention of the Republican-dominated Legislature were the claims of Trump and his supporters that he would have won re-election in 2020 if not for rampant voter fraud, which included tampering with voting machines. Numerous courts and state and federal election officials found those allegations to be false, saying that whatever election fraud occurred, it was too small to have impacted the outcome in battleground states. Nor was there any proof that the Russians or anyone else was able to hack into the nation’s voting equipment, although it wasn’t for their lack of trying.
Still, the incessantly repeated allegations were enough to create widespread acceptance of the longstanding recommendations of U.S. election security experts to replace touchscreen machines with hand-marked paper ballots read by optical scanners. Just five Mississippi counties had optical-scanner systems in place in 2016. By November, it should be close to 40.
The new state law will further move the process along. In addition to mandating a paper trail, the Legislature is providing the funding that, combined with available federal grants, will make the conversion to optical scanners feasible.
In the end, the result is going to be a good one. Mississippi will have election equipment in place in which voters can have more faith. If a machine tally looks suspicious, there will be a way to manually check it. If an election dispute winds up in court, it will be easier to resolve it.
The impetus for getting rid of touchscreen voting machines might have been flawed, but mothballing them is without question the right decision.