By Robert Thomas
Like many others, Mari Jacobson was quite excited for her chance to vote for the first time in Georgia’s June 20 6th congressional district special election last year and had great confidence that her vote counted.
As Jacobson went with her mom to vote at a local library in Johns Creek, Georgia, that sunny afternoon, she was pessimistic but hopeful about her preferred candidate’s chances of winning. Despite not feeling “super magical” after her first time voting as she expected, Jacobson had strong faith in the election process, and the electronic voting machine she voted on. “I know there were a lot of questions of interference when it came to the presidential election, but I didn’t really think about it pertaining to this small election,” Jacobson said. But after hearing news of the scandal over Georgia’s election servers being wiped last October, she now feels her confidence in the process has been shattered.
She is, however, joined in her skepticism of the current process by State Rep. Scot Turner, who last week proposed House Bill 680 to return the state to paper ballots, which he says are more secure than electronic voting machines. Turner not alone in his push, as in recent years there has been an increasing number of states returning to traditional paper ballots. Although, many local voters remain skeptical of whether switching to paper ballots would have any actual impact on election security.
Broderick Armbrister, who also voted in the election, echoes Jacobson in saying he felt quite passionate about his vote as he stepped into the voting booth at the Milton Public Library and fulfilled what he considered to be his “citizen duties” that afternoon. Armbrister says he considers himself politically active and even went canvassing for his preferred candidate a number of times prior to the election. “I try to be practical with these things,” Armbrister said. “Politics is no joke. It’s really serious.”
Politically fatigued with the current political atmosphere, however, Jacobson was unsurprised when she initially heard of the scandal over Georgia’s election server’s being wiped. “I should’ve been more shocked than I was, but I really kind of wasn’t,” she said. “It was just kind of like ‘Oh. Well that happened.’” Like many others, Jacobson felt powerless and unsure of what one person could do. Though this news increased her skepticism of electronic voting, she remains skeptical of the benefit of paper ballots versus electronic voting.
State Rep. Turner, however, strongly believes in the superior security of traditional paper ballots over electronic voting machines, and is fighting to make the switch. Turner is apparently not alone among his party in this sentiment either; as David Shock, a Kennesaw State University political science professor, says that there is currently a significant division over the issue at the state level. “It appears that you have some Republicans trying to put Brian Kemp, the Secretary of State, in a difficult position in terms of defending electronic voting”, said Shock. Brian Kemp, who Shock says is the one of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination in the gubernatorial election, has vigorously defended the safety of electronic voting.
While Shock is skeptical there is substantial risk with electronic voting, he does see the benefits of paper ballots and also concurs with State Rep. Scot Turner in saying that paper ballots are most likely more secure. Previous studies by security experts at Princeton University, however, have repeatedly demonstrated that many electronic voting machines are dangerously insecure and vulnerable to attack and manipulation. Another similar study, done by the Brennan Center for Justice, showed that 43 states, including Georgia, were using voting machines that were at least a decade old; perilously close to the end of the projected lifespan for most of these systems. Security experts at Princeton University say this puts them at an increased risk of attack and manipulation.
However, despite these flaws of electronic voting, there are definite advantages to electronic voting. “The advantage of electronic voting is that it prevents people from casting, at least accidently, what is called a spoiler ballot,” said Shock. A spoiler ballot is a paper ballot that has been marked in a way that invalidates the ballot. Shock said spoiler ballots are typically significantly below 1 percent in any given election. In fact, a survey of the 2006 midterm elections by the United States Election Assistance Commission found an undervoting rate of just 0.1 percent in US Senate elections and 1.6 percent in US House elections, with overvotes being even rarer. Shock also says that electronic voting machines allow for significantly faster tallying of votes, and thus faster election results.
An analysis of data by the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of registered voters, or 47 percent, live in jurisdictions that use only optical-scan paper ballot voting as their standard voting system, and about 28 percent live in jurisdictions with electronic voting machines only. Another 19 percent of registered voters live in jurisdictions where both are used.
A possible compromise to this issue, that many jurisdictions have clearly taken, is paper ballot assistive marking devices. Rather than recording the vote into a computer’s memory, these electronic devices instead mark votes on a paper that is later tabulated manually. The benefit of these machines is a verifiable paper audit trail, or physical slips of paper for every vote that is counted is produced. Some of these devices even produce a tangible piece of paper for the voter showing the name of the candidate they voted for, and a symbol of the party. This allows a voter a verifiable means of knowing their vote was correctly counted. These machines also have the added benefit of reducing or eliminating the amount of unintentionally spoilt votes made on paper.
Although many security experts say that paper ballots are more secure, several voters, like Jacobson and Armbrister, are still skeptical that paper ballots will make a difference, with Jacobson going as far as to say she believes electronic voting is possibly equally secure. “I don’t think going backwards is the next step,” said Jacobson. “We should try to find out a new more innovative way if they really want to change it.”