Best Way to Verify Votes?

February 24, 2018 - NPR

What's the best way to safeguard elections from hackers? Good old-fashioned paper ballots, says Marian Schneider, President of Verified Voting. She talks with NPR's Scott Simon.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST: Remember hanging chads - harried poll workers staring at punched paper ballots trying to determine what a dangling chad or stray mark may have indicated how somebody wanted to cast their ballot in the presidential election of 2000? Punch-card ballots and paper got a bad rap in favor of smooth, sleek, instantaneous electronic voting systems that were supposed to remove doubt. With those advancements came bigger problems. The major fear is now hacking, and more voices now urge a return to paper ballots.

Marian Schneider is president of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that's dedicated to verifiability in elections. She joins us from the studios of WHYY in Philadelphia. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARIAN SCHNEIDER: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Should we return to paper?

SCHNEIDER: Short answer - yes. But I want to point out that 70 percent of the country already uses an electronic voting system with either a voter-marked paper ballot or a paper record, so it's not exactly a return to paper. There's just a few locations that still use what we perceive as unverifiable voting systems, and that's what we need to change.

SIMON: They're vulnerable to hacking.

SCHNEIDER: Well, they're computers, and all computers have a level of risk. The key is to manage the risk - get it as close to zero as possible - but also have a way to recover in the event that something happens. And the way we recover in voting is by having a voter-marked paper ballot or other paper record that can't be altered by software that we can use to check the electronic tallies.

SIMON: There are other drawbacks to paper ballots, though, too, aren't there? It's not as if voter fraud was unheard of in the day of paper ballots.

SCHNEIDER: Certainly, that's true. But we know how to have a secure chain of custody with physical evidence. We do it every day in the criminal justice system. We know how to preserve evidence, and we can apply those strategies that we've used for a long time to preserving paper ballots.

SIMON: I think there was a lot of move towards - what are they called? - direct recording or DRE systems...


SIMON: ...Following the election in 2000, when - and I'm sure the news industry was part of it.

SCHNEIDER: (Laughter).

SIMON: A lot of people said, how can the greatest country in the - you know, you can go to an ATM and get $200. Why can't we have a sleek, electronic voting system in this country?

SCHNEIDER: I think that's absolutely true. After the Help America Vote Act was enacted in 2002, there was a movement away from that. And so what the trade-off there was a lack of ambiguity for a lack of verifiability. So yes, DREs, as we call them - direct recording electronic - there's a lack of ambiguity. But if it's wrong, there's no way of knowing whether it's wrong or how to check it.

SIMON: Are you concerned about the elections that are coming up - both the midterms 2018 and then presidential in 2020?

SCHNEIDER: I'd like to see more urgency in replacing these unverifiable systems. I think that in states that have them still, there's a huge impact. You know, there's five states that a hundred percent of voters use them. There's another eight states where a significant percentage of voters use them, including Pennsylvania. So we need to move towards getting systems in which you can recover in case there's an event.

But I want to make another point about that. These are risks, not certainties. So I think election officials do an amazing job, considering the lack of resources (laughter) - that we don't spend enough. We don't allocate enough resources towards running our elections. And they do a great job. But we need to have the ability to recover in case there is something that happens.

SIMON: Marian Schneider - she's president of Verified Voting. Thanks so much for being with us.

SCHNEIDER: Thank you again for having me.

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