U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, was recklessly wrong when she claimed earlier this month that South Carolina had purchased the actual voting machines that Ohio had discarded. But we are still using machines similar to the ones Ohio rejected and that computer experts the nation over have panned, and it’s time to change that.
It’s time to change that mainly because our iVotronic machines, purchased in 2004, are nearing the end of their projected lifespan, and they’re already breaking down with annoying frequency. The state Department of Administration is considering bids through June 3 for a new system. Although the request for proposals allowed both hand-marked paper systems and a bizarre system that uses a computer to cast a ballot on paper, the state League of Women Voters helped persuade the Legislature to set aside just $40 million for a new system — considerably less than the State Election Commission requested — in hopes of pricing out the so-called ballot-marking devices and other electronic systems.
At a time when all things paper seem to be falling into disfavor, it may feel backward to switch from an electronic system to a paper-based system. But it actually makes a lot of sense.
Electronic voting machines were supposed to speed up the voting and vote-counting process and eliminate such problems as lost or unreadable ballots. But computer experts have complained from the start that the machines can be hacked, and they have frequently discovered inaccuracies, usually caused by poorly trained election workers, but inaccuracies nonetheless. Critics are particularly harsh on systems like South Carolina’s that don’t generate a paper replica of the ballot that voters can examine and officials can use for a recount.
Although we’ve never been convinced that America’s system was particularly vulnerable — the machines themselves are never connected to the internet — Russian interference in our election process has combined with these underlying concerns to produce growing voter mistrust in the our system. And that is a far bigger danger than hacking.
One of the undeniable problems with electronic voting machines is that they’re a lot more expensive than paper ballots and scanners, and the state understandably isn’t willing to spend the money needed to buy enough machines to cut down on wait time. The lack of sufficient machines and the frequent breakdowns have produced some of the longest wait times in the nation, inconveniencing dedicated voters and driving off marginal voters.
Paper ballots with scanners at each precinct, on the other hand, have proven to be just as fast (in some cases faster) and accurate; they simply don’t feel as modern. That speed and reliability help explain why only five states rely exclusively on electronic voting systems.
There are going to be problems with any voting system because human beings are involved. There will be some people who fill out their ballots incorrectly or who fail to vote in all the races, often because they’re not paying enough attention. We can design the ballots more carefully to try to overcome inattention, but we can’t eliminate it. Our goal should be to choose systems that are least likely to inject new problems into the process.
Since a significant and growing minority of voters lack confidence in electronic voting machines, and paper ballots have been demonstrated to be just as fast and reliable, for a fraction of the cost of a new electronic system, it makes no sense to spend the extra money on an electronic system.