New twist on touch screens

By TIM KALICH,

The fiasco from using a buggy app to try to compile the results a couple of weeks ago in the Iowa Democratic caucuses has reinforced the conclusion that when it comes to elections, paper is superior to paperless.

For more than a decade following the contested 2000 presidential election, Congress and the states thought computers would be the solution to Election Day snafus. They invested billions of dollars in voting equipment before realizing that computerized voting machines break just like other computers and that anything electronic can be hacked. Just ask our friends in Russia.

Thus, there’s been a major move back toward paper, if not as the sole medium for casting ballots, at least as an integral element in voting systems. USA Today reported recently that 90% of ballots in this year’s presidential election will be cast on paper, up from 75% in 2016.

Although Mississippi is slowly coming to grips with its folly in going paperless, a majority of votes in this state again this year will be cast without a way to verify that a voter’s preferences were recorded accurately. Sixty-eight of the state’s 82 counties still use the same type of touch-screen machines they switched to some 15 years ago. Nearly all of them have mothballed the external printers with which these voting machines were initially equipped. Thus, they have no voter-verified paper trail that can be used to audit the results, should there be concerns about fraud, or to recreate a precinct’s results if a voting machine were to crash.

Election security experts have been warning for years that totally electronic voting systems are a major no-no. A growing number of Mississippi counties have gotten the message and switched from touch-screen machines to paper ballots read by optical scanners. The cost of the conversion — even with the federal government providing some help — has dissuaded other counties from doing the same.

Such a purchase not only neglects the advice of experts but also overlooks an exciting development in voting technology that is being pioneered in this state.

VotingWorks, a small national nonprofit company, is using Mississippi as its main testing ground for developing voting machines that combine touch-screen technology and paper. It did a pilot run in 2019 in Choctaw County, using the feedback it got from local officials to modify the hardware before running the entire November general election on the new machines. The result was so positive that Choctaw County is in the process of purchasing them.

The way the system works, a voter is given a data card at the precinct. He sticks the card into what is in essence a laptop computer, which brings up the ballot on a touch screen. The voter marks his choices, ejects the data card, takes it over to a print station, where he generates a paper copy to review and drops it into a secured box. After the polls close, the ballot box is transported to the courthouse, where the paper ballots are electronically scanned and the results tabulated.

Because the VotingWorks system uses off-the-shelf hardware and the paper ballots don’t have to be specially printed, the cost of a VotingWorks system averages a third to a half less than an optical scanning system, according to Charlie Munford, a Yale graduate and Jackson native who has been talking up VotingWorks around the state for more than a year. A basic system starts at $3,500 per precinct — or roughly $63,000 for a county the size of Leflore.

One hang-up counties may have about VotingWorks is its machines are not certified by the federal Election Assistance Commission. Mississippi, however, is one of the few states that does not require such certification, which is a big reason why the start-up company has focused its machine-development efforts in this state. In addition, a recent article by ProPublica reports that the federal certification process has become so onerous that many see it “as an impediment to the kind of technological progress urgently needed in the field.”

Mississippi still has $3 million of its 2018 HAVA money that has not been spent. It is scheduled to receive another $5 million this year from the feds, to be matched with $1 million in state funding.

If the VotingWorks machines perform as well as advertised, that might be enough money to cover most of the cost of converting all 68 of the remaining paperless counties. 

Tim Kalich is editor and publisher of The Greenwood Commonwealth. Reach him at (662)  581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com