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Election Security: It’s Time to Enforce the Paper Ballot

The 2020 Iowa caucuses were an embarrassment for the entire country. Rumors immediately spread about who actually won and who was responsible for the fiasco. Was it Russia? Some shadowy company? Or was it simply the stupidity of using “advanced” technology when paper works just fine?

The only reason we know the real results of the caucus is because of paper ballots. Counties all over the United States keep trying to modernize their voting systems with new technology. Yet the truth is that paper ballots tallied by an optical scanner are the best method for safe, quick, and accurate voting results.

Our voting process has two problems: 1) No federal statute requires states to use paper ballots, 2) and no federal guidelines exist for what technology should be used to tally votes. All electronic voting machines are hackable. Therefore, paper ballots are necessary to recount votes if a machine is compromised. Unfortunately, not all voting machines with a paper trail are created equal.

Some counties, such as Los Angeles, use voting machines which print a paper copy the voter can then review. These machines are a security risk because the majority of voters do not review their copy of the ballot once printed. This leaves the machines vulnerable to hackers who could manipulate printed votes. If one of these machines were compromised, the paper trail would be meaningless.

The best option is paper ballots that are hand-marked by voters. These ballots should then be put into an optical scanner for tallying. If an optical scanner becomes compromised, the hand-marked paper ballots inside can accurately be recounted. This is the best and safest option, and also happens to be relatively cheap considering the cost of other machines.

One optical scanner costs $2,500 to $5,000. Although this may seem steep, only one scanner is needed for a voting station, depending on the population density. Voting stations must also have a ballot marking device for the disabled, which costs about $2,000. In 2017 the Brennan Center published an estimate for replacing all fully electronic machines with optical scanners. The price was $130 million to $400 million. This falls right in budget for the SAFE (Securing America’s Federal Elections) act which recently passed the House of Representatives. This bill would provide $600 million for states to update their voting system to paper ballots for safer elections. However, the Senate has yet to act.

Opponents of the bill believe a federal mandate requiring paper ballots would interfere with the way individual states run their elections. But if states are using vulnerable technology to run their elections, then the system needs to be fixed. Security should be a top priority when it comes to voting—for all states. Not only does voting show Americans their voice matters, but it’s the foundation of our democracy. People have died for the right to vote. Our citizens should not have to question the legitimacy of their vote due to faulty machines. All Americans have the right to be heard, and it’s about time the federal government ensured that right.

Russia targeted election systems in all 50 states during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This isn’t a partisan issue, it’s a national security issue. If our systems are not updated, Russia or other foreign entities could manipulate election outcomes in the future. There are only two options: we turn back to paper or we turn our back on democracy. Let’s choose paper ballots tallied by an optical scanner. Let’s choose safe and secure elections.