Are Voting Machines Or Paper Ballots Safer? It All Depends On Where You Live

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In the aftermath of the 2016 American presidential election, some people may be wondering whether voting machines or paper ballots are safer. It's a question that has also occupied state and federal officials, including the Senate Intelligence Committee, which gave its own assessment of the issue in March over concerns about election meddling.

Before getting into the debate, though, it's worth understanding the difference between voting machines and paper ballots. In the United States, there are primarily two ways to cast a vote. One option is to allow a digital or optical scanner to tabulate a paper ballot at a polling station. The other option is digitally entering your vote into a machine where it is then recorded. Still, these aren't the only types of voting equipment; in some smaller jurisdictions, votes are simply hand-counted.

Given the gravity of the subject, federal officials have attempted to share their ideas for interference-proof elections. The Senate Intelligence Committee gathered in March to give its recommendations on how to lower the chance of election meddling in the United States. Per the committee's assessment, states would do better if they had voting machines that produced paper ballots. You might think of it as a compromise between paper ballots and technology.

Paper ballots may have a variety of problems: officials may lose track of paper trails, they may fail to audit them, it can be a whole lot of manual work, paper is vulnerable to environmental damage like a fire or other spoiling dangers, and more. But they do have one unmistakable advantage over electronic voting machines: they are hack-proof.

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The subject of hacking doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon. Although Vladimir Putin denied allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. election, federal officials remain cautious — and so do cyber security experts. Larry Johnson, the CEO of cyber security threat management firm CyberSponse, told The Business Insider that the process of shielding American elections against Russian interference is like a game of whack-a-mole.

Johnson said, "You whack that mole and he pops his head up somewhere else. So it's all about continuously being vigilant and building walls. You can never sit back and think you've got the adversary figured out, because you don't."

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In August 2016, Princeton professor Andrew Appel demonstrated just how stunningly easy it was to hack a voting machine in seven minutes. A hacked voting machine may enable a hacker to switch a voter's choice to a different one without his or her consent or knowledge. Through manipulating a voting machine's vulnerability, hackers can even delete entire databases of voters.

Plus, to make matters worse, voting machines are often simply unsound. For instance, in Texas, a voting machine "flipped" votes; officials blamed user error while some pointed to just bad design. In Georgia, voters also reported instances of "flipped" votes on old voting machines as well as touch-screens that wouldn't respond to their input.

In comments to Bloomberg Businessweek, voting security advocate Marilyn Marks said that the safest choice was to turn to paper ballots. She said that the stakes are high as voting machines "are a national security risk." Bloomberg Businessweek reported that federal officials' main concern about voting machines is the lack of federal security guidelines around them.

Given the fact that such machines produce zero paper record, voters don't have the power to authenticate their input. On top of that, auditors can't carry out their own evaluations. Paper ballots, on the other hand, would require an optical scanner — though skeptics worry it is more time-consuming than voting machines.

Still, Georgia Institute of Technology's cybersecurity professor Richard DeMillo echoed Marks' support for paper ballots in Bloomberg Businessweek. "It's absolutely the safest way," he said. "All this fancy stuff — you are talking to a computer scientist, and it breaks my heart to say this — but it just drives up the cost and doesn’t add anything."