Touchscreen voting systems are not secure

When Mississippi voters went to the polls, most cast their ballots on voting machines whose days are numbered.

State election officials are in denial about this. They have even spent money in the past year — the proverbial “throwing good money after bad” —  buying more of the touchscreen machines that election security experts say are susceptible to hacking and prone to malfunction.

A court decision earlier this month out of Georgia should serve as an omen. Eventually, Mississippi is going to be sued because in more than three-fourths of its counties, there is no paper trail to verify that what’s recorded on the voting machines accurately reflects the voters’ choices.

The issue came to the forefront in Georgia because of a tight race in 2018 for lieutenant governor, in which there was an unusually high number of ballots on which no vote was recorded. About 4.3 percent of the nearly 4 million ballots cast had no preference selected in the lieutenant governor’s race — an “undervote” rate that was two to four times higher than the norm. It raised suspicions that the voting machines either malfunctioned or were tampered with.

Plaintiffs in a state lawsuit were unsuccessful in getting the Republican winner’s victory thrown out, but they were successful in persuading a federal judge to order that this would be the last year for Georgia to use its paperless Diebold touchscreen machines.

Sixty-nine of Mississippi’s 82 counties, including Leflore and Carroll counties, use touchscreen voting machines made by the same manufacturer, although a different model than Georgia’s. All but one of these 69 counties removed — with the consent of the U.S. Justice Department and the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office — the external printers with which the touchscreen machines were initially equipped.

That has proven to be a huge mistake by all parties.

They have traded the inconvenience of dealing with balky printers for the uncertainty of knowing whether a voter’s preferences are recorded accurately and in full.

This tradeoff is not going to be tolerated for long. To invite a lawsuit, all Mississippi needs is one close election where the machine totals look suspicious. And even if that doesn’t happen, Congress could dictate that voting systems nationwide must have some type of voter-verified paper trail.

There are already plenty of legitimate worries about Russian or other foreign efforts to monkey with the country’s elections. Even if hackers are not successful at breaking into the voting systems, the voters’ trust in the ballot results — an essential element in preserving democracy — is going to erode if there is no way to compare what’s recorded on a voting machine’s memory chip against a paper record the voters themselves reviewed when they cast their ballot.

An even greater danger is that, as these touchscreen machines age, they are going to develop problems, just as any computer does. There have been demonstrated cases where electronic voting machines have crashed and lost their records. Without a backup paper trail, there is no way to recreate the votes that have disappeared.

The best system, according to the security experts, is one that combines old technology with new. Voters mark their choices on a paper ballot, which is then scanned to quickly tabulate the results. If the scanners break down or questions are raised about their accuracy, the paper ballots can be hand-counted to verify the totals.

Gradually, Mississippi is gravitating toward these optical scanners. Thirteen counties now employ them, up from five a year ago. The process needs to speed up. Whoever is elected the next secretary of state should take the lead in getting this done and not wait for federal courts or lawmakers to compel it.

Just don’t imitate Georgia’s attempt at a solution.

Earlier this year, that state awarded a $107 million contract for replacement touchscreen machines that will also generate a paper ballot. Problem is, the paper ballot is a QR code that summarizes the voter’s choices but is indecipherable to the human eye. Voters still won’t be able to tell whether their choices have been accurately recorded.

A further court fight is expected.

Contact Tim Kalich at 662-581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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