Quick facts about Ballot-marking devices

By Karen McKim

First: No, I’m not making this up. Vendors really are promoting $5,000 computers to replace pens for marking ballots. Yes, election officials really are buying them.  

And on Tuesday, June 11, the Wisconsin Elections Commission is set to certify an updated model of one of these systems already in use in this state—without seriously considering the risks. (Discussion starts on page 25 of that linked document.)

Originally designed in response to federal disability-rights laws, ballot-marking devices (BMDs) allow voters to select candidates by touching a computer monitor. Visually impaired voters can listen through earphones and vote by speaking their choices.

Because BMDs only mark paper ballots, but do not count votes (the votes must be counted either by hand or a tabulator), they do not create the same set of security risks as touchscreen machines that tabulate results.

However, all BMDs create risks that do not exist when a voter marks a paper ballot with a pen. The worst types of BMDs create security problems so serious they rival paperless voting.

When hand-marking a ballot, voters can notice and correct any problem—perhaps the pen slips or runs out of ink.  And when the voter casts the ballot, he or she can be certain that the marks accurately record the voter’s intent because, well, the voter recorded them.

The same is not true when a computer records the votes. Hardware sometimes develops problems because of poor maintenance, wearing out, or just plain random malfunction. Software sometimes develops glitches. Human programmers sometimes make mistakes. Being human, even authorized programmers can deliberately manipulate the system so that it does what they, not the voters, want.  

And those are the risks before we even mention the hackers who so thoroughly dominate media imagination and public comprehension of election security issues.

Local election officials, lacking superhero powers, cannot prevent every glitch or malfunction. They have no control of security before the software comes into their possession.  Even the most rigorous pre-election testing cannot detect malicious code written to operate only on Election Day.

One risk—that the BMD can omit some votes or record the wrong ones—could be eliminated if voters were willing and able to review the printed ballots and re-mark their ballots if they saw a problem.  But voters are neither willing nor able.

Voters prefer to vote quickly, and few take the time carefully to review their printed ballot.  This problem is more serious than it seems, because only voter-verified ballots qualify as auditable records of voter intent.  Without proof that the voters verified the ballots, the best that auditors can do is confirm that the voting system produced the results it was programmed to produce—but they cannot confirm the results reflect the will of the voters.

On top of that, voting machine companies have found a way to make sure voters are not able to verify. Take a look at the BMD-printed ballot reproduced below, from an ES&S demonstration of their BMD, the ExpressVote.  Election officials say—and many even believe—that voters can verify their votes by reading the text.

But that human-readable text is merely decorative; it serves no function. The real votes—the only votes the tabulator will see and count—are encoded in those bar codes

And no voter can verify those. So to complete the decorative effect, the voting-machine company provides an additional feature: a barcode reader that voters can use if they want to take additional time to see a read-out of the votes. That is like asking the computer programmer, “You’re not lying to me, are you?”  

The very worst type of BMD is used in a few places in Wisconsin, and is making more headway in some other states. When you understand what’s known as a “hybrid machine,”  it’s easy to think that, for some reason, voting companies are actively trying to undermine voter confidence.  

Hybrid machines combine a BMD with a tabulator, in one machine. The voter uses a touchscreen to select his or her votes, and tells the computer to print the ballot.  When the voter inspects the printed ballot (or not; it’s the voter’s choice), the ballot goes back into the same machine to be tabulated.

But in doing that, the ballot passes back under the same printer heads that marked it in the first place!  If these machines malfunction or are mis-programmed, they could make additional marks on the ballots that the voters did not intend and cannot know about.

There’s more I could say about BMDs and the management practices necessary to minimize the risk whenever they are used.  For one, voters need to insist on adequate public pre-election testing.  Right now, I know of no Wisconsin municipality that publicly pretests the barcoding function before allowing early voters to use BMDs. I know of one (City of Madison) that conducts early voting by BMD for weeks before the public pre-election tests. That practice is unnecessary, careless and, if widely known, would be seriously detrimental to voter confidence.

And some good news: A group of US Senators (16 as of June 8), led by Ron Wyden of Oregon and including Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, are sponsoring federal election-security legislation that, among other safeguards, bans BMDs that do not “mark votes in such a way that vote selections can be inspected and verified by the voter … without the aid of any machine or other equipment.”

WEC can be contacted by email at elections@wi.gov.  Before close of business Monday, June 10, contact them with “Message for Commissioners” in the subject line. Tell the Commissioners to understand and resolve the security issues before they certify any more BMDs.

While you’re at it, you can contact Senator Baldwin to thank her for co-sponsoring the PAVE Act.

Quick facts

Ballot-marking devices are computers that mark ballots, but do not count votes.

Benefits of BMDs:

  • Accessible independent voting at the polling place for voters with certain types of disabilities (but they don’t need barcodes for that);
  • BMDs that print ballots on blank paper (as opposed to those that mark pre-printed ballots) have the following benefits: 1) Early, off-site voting locations (such as public libraries) can serve multiple wards without having to stock each ward’s unique ballot; 2) Polling places can never run out of printed ballots, unless they run out of plain paper; 3) Unused ballots can be kept to a minimum or eliminated, reducing opportunity for ballot-box stuffing or other mix-ups.
  • Potentially fewer ballot-marking errors that might invalidate votes or ballots (but tabulating machines also identify mismarked ballots and return them for voter correction).

Drawbacks and dangers of BMDs:

  • Increases election costs (A computer costs more than a pen, and one whole computer is needed to replace each voting booth)
  • Slows down the voting process, because it takes longer to scroll through a computerized menu and make selections than it does to view and mark a paper ballot;
  • Barcoded ballots eliminate voters’ ability to verify their ballots contain the correct votes;
  • Even when barcodes are not printed, no auditable record of the election is created, because there is no way to know whether every voter paused to review the printed ballot and was willing and able to re-mark a ballot if they noticed a problem;
  • When used to replace hand-marked ballots, BMDs reduce the ability of polling places to expand to accommodate high-turnout elections or avoid long lines when many voters appear at the same time.

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