Paper vs. Machine

Do our voting systems need to go low-tech to save our democracy?

This feature article appears in the October 2017 issue of Hyperlink. To purchase a copy, go to

By Karen Beattie

On November 8, 2016, I rushed downtown to Chicago’s Loop to cast my ballot, excited to participate in the democratic process during a close and historic presidential race. When I saw the line snaked around the block, my heart sank, and I kicked myself for not voting early. I considered bailing and going home, but I felt it was my duty as an American citizen to stick it out. Plus, I had voted in every election since I was eighteen — I couldn’t stop now.

As I stood in line with hundreds of other voters, the atmosphere was electric. Strangers chatted about the tight race, shared opinions about how much longer we would have to stand in line, and relayed information about what the early polls were saying. The line inched toward the door of the voting facility and officials yelled out instructions.

Finally, I reached the inside of the building and the table where voting officials checked names against their register. I told the elderly woman my name. She verified that I was registered and handed me a white plastic card the size of a credit card. “Put this in the machine, cast your vote, and then hand this card to the person at the exit,” she said.

I’ve voted in many elections with many different types of voting machines. I’ve used ballots that required me to color in an oval next to the name of the candidate and put the ballot into an optical scanner. I’ve also used a “punch-card ballot,” punching a hole next to the candidate’s name. And years ago, when I was a newly minted American voter, I vaguely remember entering a voting booth where I pushed down levers next to a candidate’s name.

But using a touchscreen to cast my ballot was a new experience.

I inserted the plastic card into the slot beneath the screen, tapped the touchscreen buttons next to the candidates I preferred, and then when I finished, took out the card and handed it to the official at the exit.

As I walked back into the bustling city street, I thought, “That’s it? How does the card work, exactly? And how can I know for sure that machine read my ballot correctly? Is this even secure?” It seemed too easy.

Turns out, my discomfort was not unfounded.

Check out this snippet from the sixth episode of Season 2 of the Hyperlink Radio podcast, where Karen talks to Barbara Simons, PhD, about the security of our voting systems. Show Notes *** Subscribe on iTunes

In July 2017, at the DefCon computer security conference in Las Vegas, one of the world’s largest hacker conventions, organizers set up a “Voting Machine Hacking Village.” According to’s coverage of the conference, hackers were able to hack into all of the roughly thirty types of voting machines in the village, including those used to tabulate votes and to check in voters when they go to the polls. One group of hackers even managed to perform a common hacking prank by “rick-rolling” a touch screen voting machine — like the one I had used to vote in the 2016 election — by programming it to play Rick Astley’s 1987 hit song “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

Barbara Simons, PhD, is not surprised. Simons, president of Verified Voting, a non-partisan organization that advocates for accuracy and verifiability of elections, says, “Most of our voting machines are falling apart. Some of them use software from early 2000s, or even late 1990s, and it’s no longer being maintained. You probably don’t know anyone who still has a computer from those days, yet you are voting on a voting system [that’s fifteen or twenty years old]. And that is not acceptable.”

Touchscreen-based electronic ballot marker that prints paper ballots to be read by an optical scanner

From Marbles to Machines

How did we get here? As the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, shouldn’t our technology be advanced enough to ensure that our voting systems are secure?

Computerized voting machines, of course, are somewhat new. Throughout the history of our nation, our voting systems have evolved from marbles to paper to levers to computers.

The term ballot is derived from the Italian word ballotta, which means “little ball.” During the genesis of voting in the United States, participants placed colored marbles representing different candidates in a wooden box. The candidate with the most marbles won. While this method was never used in a US presidential election, it was common in other elections and in early social organizations in Washington, DC.

Still, most early US elections were very primitive, and very public. Before the Revolution, polling areas would be announced, then citizens would gather at the appointed location (maybe even a carnival) and time, and cast their vote by calling out their preferred candidate. After the Revolution, until the 1800s, voters signed their names on a public ballot, indicating which candidate they preferred.

As I walked back into the bustling city street, I thought, “That’s it? How does the card work, exactly? And how can I know for sure that machine read my ballot correctly? Is this even secure?” It seemed too easy.

But as our government and the number of citizens grew, this method became untenable, so we moved on to printed ballots. Each party distributed ballots listing the candidates, and voters simply took a ballot from their desired party and dropped it into the ballot box.

During the nineteenth century, American politics grew increasingly divisive, and voters didn’t want their neighbors to know who they voted for. After the Civil War, the term “vest-pocket” voting emerged to refer to people who kept their ballots in their pockets rather than holding them in their hands for everyone to see.

Paper ballots became passé when the gear-and-lever voting machine was invented in the 1890s. Patented by inventor Alfred J. Gillespie, the machine had 28,000 moving parts. Voters entered a big, bulky metal contraption and pulled a lever to close the curtain behind them, simultaneously unlocking the levers on the panel in front of them so they could cast their votes. The voters then pulled down smaller levers next to the candidates and referendums they wanted to vote for. By 1920, these machines were integrated into the US election process; by 1960, about 60 percent of voters in the United States cast their ballots using them.

But the expensive machines broke easily, and new parts were hard to come by. So when the much cheaper punch-card voting systems came along in 1964, most states replaced the gear and lever machines with punch-card ballots.

The punch-card system used a butterfly ballot with the names of candidates listed in two columns down each side, and a set of holes down the middle that a voter could punch in order to mark their vote. The punched ballots were then tabulated via an electronic reading device. The only problem was that sometimes the holes weren’t punched all the way through . . . which led to the “hanging chad” disaster of the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when almost two million votes were disqualified because the punch cards were unreadable.

After the 2000 election fiasco, Americans started to rethink their voting systems. In 2002, the Help America Vote Act was passed and signed into law by then-president George W. Bush. The legislation provided funding to states to upgrade their voting systems, replacing the punch-card systems and what was left of the lever machines with paperless, computerized voting systems.

The Importance of Paper Ballots

Although technology has made our lives easier in many ways, there are limits to its use. Most voting system experts agree that it is nearly impossible to create a computerized voting system that would be completely secure.

After the Help America Vote Act was passed, says Simons, “I, together with most of my colleagues, was appalled at the idea that anybody would trust computers enough that you could have paperless machines, because we know that programs can have software bugs, and hidden, malicious code that can be used to modify election results.”

“Even if, by some technological miracle, a voting machine was constructed that was actually secure, why would I believe its claim of security?” asks Douglas Jones, PhD. “If we get in the habit of believing such claims, we’d be at risk of not bothering to check, and if we do that, someone will slip us a crooked alternative version of that machine.”

Jones, who is an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa, became involved in voting systems in late 1994, when Iowa changed its laws, renaming the Iowa Board of Voting Machine Examiners to the Iowa Board of Examiners for Voting Machines and Electronic Voting Systems. The board required one of the three members of the reconstituted board to be a computer expert. They circulated a call for volunteers to serve on the board in the state’s high-tech industries and universities.

“I saw the call and thought, ‘That looks like a thankless job. Who in their right mind would volunteer?’” But he also also saw the need. “I thought someone needed to pay attention,” he says.

Turns out he was the only volunteer, so he was elected to the board.

“The best voting systems are ones where you can verify that everything was done right, after the fact,” says Jones. “That means that the voting system has to produce evidence that you can check and not just a ‘trust me, these are the right numbers’ result. Machine-counted paper ballots, such as optical scan ballots, are a good example. They meet these two requirements so long as you have not only a first count but also an audit that is strong enough to detect programming errors or malicious behavior in the ballot tabulators.”

Simons agrees. “The problem is, people looked at Florida in 2000 and said, ‘Paper doesn’t work,’ but that was the wrong conclusion. The conclusion, should have been, ‘The inappropriate use of paper doesn’t work,’” she says.

Most voters today, when going to their polling location, will find one of two systems: the optical scan paper ballot, or a direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting system, such as the touchscreen I used in the 2016 election, which records votes into the computer’s memory. Some DREs can be equipped with Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), a method in which a printer allows the voter to confirm their selections on an independent paper record before recording their votes into computer memory. This paper record is preserved and, depending on state election codes, made available in the event of an audit or recount.

But according to Verified Voting, of the 53,608 jurisdictions that use DREs as their major voting method, almost three-quarters use systems that don’t create paper receipts or other hard-copy records of voters’ choices.

Currently, there are five states that use completely paperless voting, including New Jersey, South Carolina, Delaware, Georgia, and Louisiana. Nine other states are partially paperless, including Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kansas. That means if hackers were to infiltrate the voting systems in these states, or if the vote were close and there were a question as to whether the votes had been tabulated correctly, there would be no way for election officials to conduct a paper audit to verify the vote.

Some of these states are significant. For instance, Georgia, which just had a major special election, uses entirely paperless Diebold machines, which hackers have known how to rig since 2006. And in Pennsylvania, commonly a heavily contested state, 80 percent of voters are forced to vote on insecure, obsolete, paperless voting machines that Simons says “should have been recycled for junk a long time ago.”

There’s a big difference between a paper trail and a paper ballot.

It turns out that there had been a paper trail when I voted on a DRE in the 2016 election—but I hadn’t noticed it. Some precincts in Illinois use DREs with VVPATs. The problem is, like me, most people don’t look at the roll of paper to confirm that their vote was recorded correctly.

“When DREs first came out, there was no paper,” says Simons. But because Verified Voting “yelled and screamed,” Simons says, they were able to convince some officials to add a paper trail. “In principle,” she says, “you are supposed to look at that and make sure it accurately recorded your vote, because in the event of a recount/audit, the paper trail is what should be used. But most people don’t look at it. In fact, it’s not a good technology. We really need to move to all paper ballots.”

There’s a big difference between a paper trail and a paper ballot. A paper trail only records the votes cast on a computerized machine, but like me, most people don’t confirm their votes on the paper. A paper ballot is a piece of paper that voters actually mark by coloring in a circle or arrow to cast their vote. Then the ballots are counted by a computerized optical scanner. This means that officials can randomly select a statistically significant number of paper ballots to verify that the scanner counts them properly.

And if the scanner has been hacked or has a glitch? The votes can simply be counted by hand. Both methods use paper and computers, but according to Simons, Jones, and other experts, votes should be cast on paper ballots and counted by a computer—not cast on a computer and verified by a paper trail.

Threats from All Sides

So how has the dismal state of our voting systems affected the accuracy of our elections? Electoral fraud has always been a part of election stories in the United States. Even in early voting, some candidates bribed voters by offering them free land; officials also intimidated voters, changed poll locations and voting times, or simply changed election results unilaterally.

These days, says Jones, “Most election officials, even the intensely partisan ones, bend over backward to count the votes honestly. This makes me proud to be an American — but it leaves me worried . . . Corrupt local governments were awfully common a century ago, and we could easily return to doing business that way.”

And hacking is always a concern. “It doesn’t seem that [the Russians] hacked the actual vote count,” says Jones, “But it seems clear that they worked hard on social media, and they worked hard at hacking the traditional news media.”

A ballot scanner, able to scan and sort 4,000 paper ballots per hour

According to a report from Bloomberg, Russia’s US election meddling was much more widespread than the public has been told. Hackers attacked voting systems in thirty-nine states, accessed campaign finance databases in one state, and tried to delete or alter voter data in Illinois.

Simons says that it’s not just the Russians hacking our election that she worries about. “What worries me is that because of 2016, it’s obvious to the world, that our elections are vulnerable, and I worry about all kinds of possible attacks coming from Russia, China, Iran, ISIS, North Korea, criminal syndicates, political operatives. There are threats coming from a multitude of countries. We don’t want some other country determining the outcome of our elections. That’s the bottom line.”

One of the main barriers to making our voting systems secure is resources. States just don’t have the money to change their voting systems or to provide enough security for their computerized machines. Simons points out that even banks, which spend millions on securing computer systems, still get hacked. And local election officials don’t have nearly the resources banks do.

Before the 2016 election, Jeh Johnson, former Homeland Security Secretary, urged the federal government to consider whether voting machines should be designated as critical infrastructure. This would put electronic voting machines into the same category as power grids, airports, and hospitals, and would allow the Department of Homeland Security to set security standards for voting machines across the country.

“If we don’t get our act together and make our elections secure, I fear [hacking] will happen again,” says Simons. “That’s why we need paper ballots. No cyber attack will work on a paper ballot.”

Whether voting machines should be considered critical infrastructure or not, Simons believes that it is a national security issue. “I think [former FBI Director] James Comey was right when he said that [the hackers] will be back in 2018 and 2020, and that’s unconscionable.”

Verified Voting and other organizations currently advocate for changes in federal legislation and appropriations to help states change their voting systems. In the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the federal government provided states with $4 billion to switch to computerized systems. Now that those systems are obsolete, breaking down, and vulnerable, some states may be open to going back to all paper ballots with optical scanners. But they lack the money to do so.

“We are starting to campaign to try to get legislation passed,” says Simons, “and we are also focusing on the state level, because a lot of decisions are left to states and localities. We don’t want to wait for federal funding. I know it’s difficult to get legislations through Congress, but I’m hopeful. This is not a partisan issue. Everyone is at risk, and it’s in everyone’s interest to make our systems secure.”

Simons says that individual voters can help by finding out what systems their states and counties use. has a tool called the “Verifier” in its navigation menu that allows voters to find out what systems their state and county uses. If your precinct uses paperless DREs, or internet voting (a particularly insecure system that’s used mostly by the military in which ballots are sent back and forth via an email attachment or web portal), contact your election officials and pressure them to switch to paper ballots.

“If we don’t get our act together and make our elections secure, I fear [hacking] will happen again,” says Simons. “That’s why we need paper ballots. No cyber attack will work on a paper ballot.”

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