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How Grassroots Groups Can Increase Voter Confidence In An Age Of Glitchy Machines

Concerns that voting machines are open to hacking, fraud, and glitches persist, but increasing machines’ reliability and security is possible.


There are some election integrity advocates who strongly believe election security begins and ends with voting machines. Others try to steer clear of “conspiracy” labels, so they shy away from complicated machine issues altogether.

Although caution is warranted when approaching allegations of interference or persistent errors, the reliability of voting equipment can’t be ignored in an attempt to walk the middle road — not if the goal is increasing voter confidence. Luckily, there are a variety of practical ways machine skepticism can and should be addressed.

Fears of machines gone amuck have existed for some time, with both sides having vocalized apprehension about machines at different points prior to 2020, including in 2019, when Democrats loudly advocated for the passage of the Securing America’s Federal Elections Act.

This distrust continues today and directly influences voting behavior — nothing could be clearer from plaintiff testimonies in a recent Georgia case, Curling v. Raffensperger. Clearly, distrust in America’s voting machines hasn’t gone away; it only bounces back and forth across party lines and must be dealt with. But that is easier said than done.

Fortunately, workable solutions do exist. However, the people best suited to bring these changes about might not be the ones you expect. Rather than D.C. politicians, local grassroots groups may be best suited to promote tangible changes on a county level — and many already have. Locals concerned with the reliability of machines may be surprised by their level of influence and should consider organizing and lobbying their local election officials about the following.

Hand-Marked Ballots

Moving from BMDs (ballot marking devices) to hand-marked paper ballots is one way to increase voter confidence without ditching the convenience and speed of electronic ballot scanners. With BMDs, a voter steps into the poll booth, makes a selection, and the machine produces a ballot with a QR code, which is later scanned to tabulate votes.

The problem is that when you look at a QR code, you can’t tell what it means unless you scan it. Although the machine also produces readable text, the readable text is not used to tabulate the results, and in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, a machine error caused the readable text and QR codes not to match. The concern is that the readable text might reflect the citizen’s vote, but the QR code, which is actually used to tabulate results, might not.

Hand-marked ballots would eliminate that issue by eliminating the QR code and creating a more reliable paper trail. As even Kamala Harris once said, “Paper ballots are the smartest, safest way to ensure your vote is secure.” Additionally, adopting hand-marked ballots would not require increased manpower because there is scanning software that counts ballots by scanning readable text instead of QR codes.

The pushback to this switch often comes because states or counties would have to purchase different software that can be expensive. Overcoming that obstacle may be more achievable in states where voting technology is determined at the county level instead of the state level.

In counties where the voting technology is rented from vendors, there may be an opportunity to switch or upgrade when vendor contracts expire. Local grassroots can be effective advocates by filing open records requests, obtaining their county’s contract, and recommending changes in technology at an optimal time.

Hand Counts

Despite what Rachel Maddow has suggested, utilizing hand counts on Election Day is not a return to horse-and-buggy days, but a viable alternative to voting machines for some select small counties. If machine reliability is a county’s primary concern, this is certainly a method that would bring greater confidence to voters, since it completely removes voting machines from the equation.

However, hand counts can be a hard sell and come with their own set of challenges. Although hand counting foregoes the cost of voting machines, it requires employing more people to do the physical counting of thousands of votes. While there are strategic ways of counting, hand counts can take quite a bit of time and introduce the possibility of human error or malfeasance. Errors from hand counts would likely be more limited than a widespread machine issue and perhaps easier to catch, but it should be noted that there could be significant errors nonetheless.

Overall, transitioning from voting machines to hand counting is not a practical or achievable solution in every county, but in a small county with robust advocacy, it may be possible.

Hand Recounts

In counties resistant to widespread changes in practice or technology, hand recounts are a much more practical way to audit machines and boost voter confidence. These are often referred to as traditional post-election audits. Many states already require that a fixed percentage of the vote be recounted by hand. If there is a discrepancy between the way machines tabulate the votes and the actual results, employing a hand recount increases the chances of uncovering the issue.

If a state already has a recount requirement, locals should consult county officials to ensure that the hand recount requirements are being met. Where hand recounts are not required, asking county election boards to adopt a partial hand recount might still be a more realistic compromise than advocating for new software or full hand recounts, while still providing some reassurance that machines have operated properly.

Logic and Accuracy Testing

Logic and accuracy testing is the process of testing voting machines before Election Day, and almost every state employs some method of logic and accuracy testing. The Election Administration Commission has extensive recommendations for how logic and accuracy testing should be performed, but there is good reason to believe that many counties are failing to follow the guidelines they suggest. Proper and thorough logic and accuracy testing likely could have prevented a major machine malfunction in Northampton, Pennsylvania, where the machines produced flipped votes.

Most states also allow public observation of logic and accuracy testing, and to ensure the testing is occurring, locals should attend. Grassroots groups may also be able to request that their election officials make certain adjustments to ensure logic and accuracy testing is as effective and thorough as possible.

Hash Testing

Lastly, there is a type of testing called hash testing, which the U.S. Election Assistance Commission recommends. Each machine has a hash value that serves as a kind of digital fingerprint. A common way of verifying the integrity of a machine’s software is to compare the hash value of the machine to the hash value of the software as originally certified.

If there are differences, it may indicate that the machine has been compromised. Local grassroots individuals who are technologically savvy may be best equipped to approach their local election officials and request that effective hash code testing be done on voting machines. If testing cannot be completed on all voting machines, perhaps grassroots members should advocate for testing at least some machines.

Grassroots Efforts Can Improve Machine Skepticism

Most county election administrators have at least some say in the election process. For this reason, county election security and transparency measures can vary — sometimes greatly. Some counties are more thorough in their use of logic and accuracy testing, some are more willing to clean voter rolls, and some can determine what election equipment they use as long as they meet certain requirements. This can open the door for local groups to have quite a bit of influence.

Increasing the reliability of voting machines is possible. It may take coordination, but it is a worthwhile endeavor where any informed citizen can make a difference.

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