A couple of years ago, I got on my high horse and warned of the risks of disconnecting the external printers from the touchscreen voting machines used in Leflore County and most of the rest of Mississippi.
Without a paper trail, I argued at the time, it would be nearly impossible to detect whether an election had been rigged by hackers.
The warning got brushed off as just some conspiracy-theory nonsense. In 2016, Leflore County mothballed the printers because election officials were tired of messing with the temperamental devices. It is now one of 73 counties in the state — Carroll is another — that have no voter-verified paper trail of ballots cast on the touchscreen machines.
The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee is now saying that paperless touchscreen machines are a big mistake and is concerned that roughly 1 in 5 Americans will cast ballots this year on them. In Mississippi, it’s more like 3 out of 4.
This growing respect for the value of an election paper trail follows the revelation that the Russians, besides running a social media disinformation campaign to boost the candidacy of Donald Trump, tried to tamper with America’s voting systems during the 2016 elections. Russian hackers attempted to break into the election systems of 21 states (Mississippi reportedly not among them) and successfully breached a few.
Although there is no proof that the electronic infiltration resulted in any changed votes, its discovery underscored not only what is possible but likely what is probable in future elections. There are going to be efforts, both by international as well as domestic agents, to gum up American elections to tilt the results or cause U.S. voters to lose confidence in them.
Although I’d like to take credit for being one of the few to see the risks of paperless voting, I was really not all that prescient. I was just passing on what anyone spending 30 minutes on the internet could have concluded. Already ample university and government research had demonstrated the tampering vulnerabilities of the touchscreen voting systems used in Mississippi and the country.
At the time, it surprised me how little Leflore County election officials and even Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, whose office is in charge of overseeing Mississippi elections and maintaining the statewide voter registry, regarded this threat. Hosemann said he wished counties wouldn’t disconnect the printers but he didn’t think doing so was any big deal. And his office continues to peddle the fallacy that because the voting machines aren’t connected to the Internet, they are not suspectible to tampering.
I’ll try this again.
The machines don’t have to be connected to the Internet in order to be electronically manipulated. All someone needs is access to a voting machine for a couple of hours, and a junior-high knowledge of electronics, to install a vote-stealing device.
Even more probable is to infect one touchscreen machine with a vote-stealing virus on its memory card. Since these memory cards are inserted into one centralized computer that programs the ballot and tabulates the election results, every machine in a county could be infected in one election cycle.
Even if you think that’s still far-fetched, there’s also the danger of a voting machine crashing and ballots being lost, with no way to recreate the votes.
In 2004, such a malfunction occurred on a touchscreen machine in North Carolina. It failed to record the last 4,000 votes cast on it, potentially impacting the result of a close statewide election. Eight months later, that state passed a law requiring voter-verified paper records.
Last week, Hosemann announced that his office had successfully applied for a $4.5 million slice of the $90 million Congress has appropriated so far to help states better secure their election systems.
Mississippi should allocate the bulk of this money into helping counties replace their touchscreen machines with optical-scanning systems, in which voters mark their choices on a paper ballot, which is then scanned to quickly tabulate the results. If the scanners malfunction or questions are raised about their accuracy, the paper ballots can be hand-counted to verify the totals. Five counties, including some of the most populous parts of the state, already use optical scanners.
It will take a lot more than $4.5 million to replace the equipment in the other 78 counties, but it’s a start.
Tim Kalich is editor and publisher of The Greenwood Commonwealth. Reach him at (662) 581-7243 or email@example.com.