Advocates Raise Red Flags Over Ballot Marking Devices: Suggest Renting, Not Buying, Limited Number

The good news is: there’s a clear national trend towards finally getting rid of “black box” paperless voting machines that make it practically impossible to verify the vote. However, many election protection advocates are concerned that the same handful of corporations that kept those paperless machines in use for years are now pushing replacements that don’t address critical principles of election integrity. There is growing controversy around the spread of “Ballot Marking Devices” (BMDs), which are machines that print a “paper ballot” after voters make their choices on a touchscreen or other interface. Even more controversial are “hybrid” machines that both mark the “paper ballots” and scan them - potentially without the voter even seeing their “paper ballot”. This is particularly troubling given that many states and other jurisdictions are rushing to purchase these machines as the backbone of their voting systems, making decisions that could impact important elections for years to come.

In a recent paper titled “Ballot-Marking devices (BMDs) cannot assure the will of the voters”, experts on election technology Andrew Appel, Richard DeMillo and Philip Stark point out the inherent flaws of BMDs currently on the market. They conclude, “The outcomes of elections conducted on current BMDs... cannot be confirmed by audits… To reduce the risk that computers undetectably alter election results by printing erroneous votes on the official paper audit trail, the use of BMDs should be limited to voters who require assistive technology to vote independently.” This echoes a letter sent by Verified Voting to Georgia state officials in January 2019, stating “In light of the pervasive security vulnerabilities of all electronic voting systems, including Ballot Marking Devices (BMDs), as well as the considerable cost of BMDs, Verified Voting Foundation endorses the use of hand-marked paper ballots as the best primary method for recording votes in public elections. BMDs do play an important role for some voters, including voters with disabilities, that prevent them from hand-marking paper ballots. However, the primary voting method for most voters should be hand-marked paper ballots.”

Even more problematic is the push for “hybrid” voting machines that combine a BMD with a scanner, meaning the machine both marks and counts the ballot. As Dr. Andrew Appel says about one such machine, “[It] has the physical ability to mark votes onto the ballot after the last time the voter sees the ballot. And that’s a disaster, if we lose the ability to trust that the paper trail really represents what the voter intended.” This glaring security flaw is described in an article titled “New ‘Hybrid’ Voting System Can Change Paper Ballot After It’s Been Cast”.

There are ongoing fights in a number of jurisdictions over hybrid voting machines, including Philadelphia and New York State. Meanwhile, a steady stream of media reports is highlighting the shady history of voting machine corporations and the inappropriate influence they wield with officials charged with choosing voting systems, including articles in NPR, The Guardian (2 parts) and The New Yorker.

For voters who are able to mark their ballots by hand, many election integrity advocates agree that the best option is hand-marked paper ballots counted by optical scanners, with robust audits to detect any problems. It’s also important that voters with disabilities who are unable to mark paper ballots by hand have access to accessible systems, like ballot marking devices. However, given the problems with ballot marking devices currently on the market, election officials needing to replace aging voting systems should rent or lease ballot marking devices, not buy them. Because currently available BMDs are not only problematic, but also expensive, any move by election officials to invest their budgets in large-scale purchases of BMDs (more than are necessary to serve voters with disabilities) should be opposed.

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