Shelby County is getting ready to replace its aging, unsecure voting machines with new voting equipment. When we did this 15 years ago, we opted for the more expensive, shiny, new high-tech touchscreen system over the more reliable low-tech paper ballot system, causing years of election problems.
- Steve Mulroy
We're about to make the same mistake again.
Hand-Marked Paper Ballots vs. Touchscreens: Local election reform advocates argue for a hand-marked paper ballot system. A voter would fill out a paper ballot by hand, filling in the bubbles on a scantron sheet like we've been doing for half a century with the high school ACT test. The voter would then feed the paper into a scanner, which would record the vote and retain the paper ballots securely so they could be used as a check against the computer record.
This system is used in 38 states. Hamilton County (Chattanooga) has used it successfully for over 20 years.
Instead, the Shelby County Election Commission is considering the latest shiny, new system, the Ballot Marking Device (BMD). With BMDs, voters would press touchscreens as before, and the touchscreen computer would print out a paper receipt which the voter can then inspect for accuracy before feeding it into a machine. The BMD system is twice as expensive and half as secure.
Expense: Both BMD and hand-marked paper ballots require a scanner at each voting precinct. But BMDs additionally require at least three to four expensive BMD touchscreen machines at each precinct. Gilford County, North Carolina, recently reported saving $5 million by opting for hand-marked paper ballots over BMDs. Since their population is smaller, it's reasonable to expect about an $8 million savings here in Shelby.
Security: The security problem is in letting a computer mark the paper receipt rather than having each voter do it himself. Any computer can be hacked. Human beings can't. Election security experts have already demonstrated how BMD machines can be hacked to make the computer print out bogus candidate selections. And even absent fraud, like with all computers, glitches are possible.
BMD advocates say, not to fear: Before the voter feeds the paper receipt into the scanner, she can spot any error and alert an election official. But that may not work in the real world, with a sophisticated hack or a non-obvious glitch. A recent University of Michigan study showed that over 90 percent of the time, voters failed to report such errors when they were present. In a close race, the study concluded, these computer errors could easily change an election outcome.
Even worse, most BMD scanners actually read a bar code on the paper receipt, like the kind used at a grocery checkout line, instead of the human-readable parts of the paper showing which candidates were selected. Since human beings can't read a bar code, even the most diligent and eagle-eyed voter won't be able to tell if her vote's being stolen. Colorado recently banned bar codes in its elections.
For these reasons, most election security experts recommend hand-marked paper ballots over BMDs. Since the scanners common to both systems are also not perfect, they also recommend Risk Limiting Audits (RLAs), where election officials manually examine a statistical sample of paper ballots to make sure they match up with the computer-recorded vote totals. Four states now require RLAs, with more expected.
The Other Side: BMD advocates object, saying that voters will screw up marking their paper ballots, introducing unacceptable levels of voter error. It's also harder for some disabled voters, they argue. Finally, they say it's unworkable during early voting in a big county like Shelby, which has over 100 different types of ballot faces (depending on which state/county/city/school board district a particular voting precinct is in). But Hamilton County, the third-largest county in the state, with over 135 different ballot faces, has managed all these issues successfully for over 20 years. They report low voter-error rates, smooth early voting sailing, and accommodations for disabled voters in each precinct. If they can make it work, why can't we?
The Shelby County Commission, which has to authorize most of the $10 to $12 million in tax dollars for this voting machine purchase, is this week and next considering a resolution supporting hand-marked paper ballots and not BMDs. The resolution would put the Election Commission on notice that they should move toward hand-marked ballots if they want county funding. There's still time to get this right. Contact the County Commission this week at 222-1000 and tell them you want hand-marked paper ballots with Risk Limiting Audits.
Or, be prepared for another 15 years of unreliable elections.
Steven Mulroy, a former Shelby County Commissioner who teaches election law at the University of Memphis law school, is author of the book Rethinking US Election Law: Unskewing the System.