The paper-or-plastic dilemma has moved out of the supermarket and into America’s boards of elections, where officials are grappling with that very question in the wake of yet another messy presidential race.
Paper ballots seemed headed for extinction after Americans spent Thanksgiving 2000 glued to their televisions, watching Broward County canvassing board Judge Robert Rosenberg peer through his giant magnifying glass at dimpled, pregnant and hanging chads during the Florida recount.
But election officials who flocked toward electronic machines in the wake of the recount are now having a rethink, as fears of hacking set in. Those fears were further stoked this week when a group of voting and computer experts urged recounts in three swing states, saying tampering could have swung the Nov. 8 election to Donald Trump.
“The only way to know whether a cyberattack changed the result is to closely examine the available physical evidence — paper ballots and voting equipment in critical states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania,” J. Alex Halderman, the computer expert who has lobbied the Clinton campaign to demand recounts, said in an internet post Wednesday.
He and his colleagues said they found Hillary Clinton did better in Wisconsin in counties that used paper ballots versus those that used digital machines. The difference could be enough to swing the outcome in the state, the team said.
Election statisticians were quick to push back, saying that the differences were explained by factors other than voting machine.
Still, fears of hacking have left boards of elections across the country questioning the push for digital machines.
“After 2000, people were like oh, paper, these messy recounts — let’s go to paperless touch screen. I think a lot of officials found that very appealing,” said Lawrence Norden, an expert on voting rights and voting technology at the Brennan Center. But in the years since, he says, “I think a lot of computer scientists have made a very convincing case there are a lot of security issues with that.”
The chief problem with touch screens is that most of them don’t produce a paper trail. That means in cases where a recount is demanded, there’s no way of seeing what voters’ initial intent was. The only option is a forensic audit of the machines to try to spot a hack.
That’s what the group of activists has urged the Clinton campaign to push for.
New York magazine reported that the activists told the campaign that Mrs. Clinton got 7 percent fewer votes in Wisconsin counties that use electronic voting machines compared to those that use paper ballots.
Mr. Halderman, in his follow-up post, said another indicator of problems is the discrepancy between pre-election polling and the final results in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Mr. Norden, the Brennan Center expert, said the evidence that’s been disclosed publicly so far doesn’t suggest there was a hack. But he said if there was evidence, the country may have had another fiasco on its hands.
“It’s only 16 years, and it wouldn’t have taken much for us to be back at the Florida 2000 situation again, as nightmarish as that sounds,” he said.
“This was a close election. What if the results from Michigan and Wisconsin came out the other way and it was all on the state of Pennsylvania? We would be in a situation now where Pennsylvania is mostly paperless voting systems,” he told The Washington Times. “It would be Florida 2000 without the ability to recount, and all kinds of accusations about why we can’t trust those machines.”
The Election Assistance Commission, the federal panel set up after the 2000 recount to try to help states, doesn’t provide much help. Its recommendations are only voluntary, and the guidelines used to certify machines date back to 2005. The commission is in the process of updating those guidelines.
In the early days of the country, voting was done in public. George Washington’s first election to the Virginia House of Burgesses was conducted by mass meeting, with the local sheriff calling out the names of voters, who would then shout out their pick.
Secret ballots became the rage in the progressive era around the turn of the 20th century, with lever-activated machines and then punch cards becoming the methods of choice.
But after the 2000 recount, the images of judges studying ballots to try to determine a voter’s wish soured many boards of elections on paper. They opted for electronic machines where the tallying — and even a recount — could be done automatically.
The last two counties to use punch cards ditched them in 2014, the Pew Research Center said.
Paper ballots still remain popular, but they are the optical scan type, where voters mark the ballot and it is then read by a machine. That method leaves a paper trail that can be checked in a recount.
Still, Pew said about 28 percent of voters live places where their only choice is what’s known as direct-recording electronic (DRE) device, such as a touch screen that records the vote electronically. Some of those machines print receipts, but about three-quarters of those counties don’t produce a paper trail.
Rebecca Mercuri, an electronic voting expert and founder of Notable Software Inc., said the headlong rush away from paper ballots missed the point. The problem wasn’t paper itself, but rather the punch cards and the chads.
“The venders, the people who wanted to sell millions of dollars of new voting machine equipment, were the ones who were pushing to get rid of paper,” she said.
Florida, where the recount took place, was a laboratory for what came next. The state eliminated punch cards, many jurisdictions went to brand-new touch-screen voting — and ended up with more snafus. The state now relies on optical-scan paper ballots, Ms. Mercuri said.
As for herself, she said she always votes absentee in New Jersey. That way she gets a paper ballot and drops it off on Election Day, so she knows she’s in control of at least parts of the process.