Republicans care a whole lot about election security these days. Fueled in part by the “Big Lie,” the baseless claim that there was widespread fraud in last year’s election, Republican lawmakers around the country have made an aggressive push to pass new laws to prevent what they saw as a nightmare scenario from happening again. While the motivation to improve election security is spurious, the ostensible goal isn’t — everyone would agree that a secure election is important for democracy. Experts say there’s one very effective way for state legislatures to make the voting process more secure: pass legislation to update voting machines. But instead of prioritizing this effort, many Republicans are instead focused on limiting voter access.
“It would be terrific to see the focus on election security lead to more investments in better, more trustworthy systems,” said Mark Lindeman, co-director of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan election security organization.
The gold standard for voting security is hand-marked paper ballots, according to security experts. That’s because a paper ballot eliminates the risk of technical difficulties or certain kinds of malicious acts (think hacking) that could change or destroy your vote, and any concerns can be addressed with a recount. Because of that, most states currently use hand-marked paper ballots or have voting machines that generate paper records for verification.
But in six states — Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, Tennessee and Texas — some or all voters still cast ballots on machines that have no paper record whatsoever, according to data from Verified Voting. While there’s no evidence that these machines have ever been hacked during an election, it’s technically possible, and they’re also prone to all kinds of undesirable malfunctions, including losing votes. With no paper backup to audit, these machines are the kind of election security liability that politicians say they’re invested in fixing.
Yet according to FiveThirtyEight’s past reporting and additional calls I made for this story, in five of those six states there has been little or no effort in the past six months to prioritize updating machines with a system that includes a paper record.
- In Indiana, where 34.2 percent of registered voters live in a jurisdiction that uses machines without a paper record, a bill was introduced that would prohibit voting machines from being connected to the internet. When a Democratic state senator introduced an amendment that would also require the machines to have paper ballot backups by July of 2021, it was voted down.
- No recent bills have been introduced in Louisiana, which exclusively uses paperless voting machines, to require a change to paper records. Louisiana’s secretary of state has twice tried to start the process for updating the state’s voting systems, and twice he’s been hindered. Most recently, the state faced resistance to working with Dominion Voting Systems, the firm that has been subject to baseless right-wing claims that its machines changed votes to favor then-candidate Joe Biden during the 2020 election.
- There have been no recent legislative efforts to update Mississippi’s outdated, paperless voting system, which has 56.8 percent of registered voters casting ballots on machines without a paper record.
- New Jersey first passed a paper record requirement for all voting machines more than a decade ago, but never set a deadline for counties to upgrade equipment — so most haven’t: Only seven counties use a system with any kind of paper record. Bills introduced this year include prohibiting voting machines manufactured overseas, but nothing about freeing up funds and setting a deadline to meet that paper backup requirement.
- There was a bill introduced this year in Tennessee, where 58.8 percent of registered voters use paperless machines, that would ban voting machines entirely (potentially a problem for disability access), but it was withdrawn two weeks later. Another bill would have required counties to make sure any future machines purchased had a paper trail, but it failed in committee.
- Texas is the exception, with two separate bills — one passing the state Senate, the other passing a House committee — that would require voting machines to have a paper record. This would update the equipment for the over 20 percent of voters still using machines without any paper trail. The Senate version even provides a funding plan, something other bills targeting election infrastructure have lacked.
Other ways to shore up election security, such as requiring paper backups for electronic pollbooks, have also gone mostly ignored since 2020. Instead, state legislatures have been flooding the docket with bills relating to the length of early voting periods, the placement of ballot drop boxes and whether volunteers can give voters waiting in line a bottle of water. Meanwhile, just a handful of bills about upgrading equipment — often without any funding attached — have trickled in, only to lose momentum and die before reaching a committee. And experts have argued that many of the bills that are gaining traction will actually harm election security by limiting opportunities to vote, which puts pressure on the existing system. If the majority of voters are forced to vote in one way, at one location and during a very limited window, then a malicious actor need only target that location to disrupt thousands of ballots.
There are efforts underway outside of the state capitols to make upgrading election machines a priority. At the federal level, the expansive, House-passed voting rights bill would require universal use of paper ballots, while at the local level, some jurisdictions like Harris County in Texas are taking it upon themselves to update machines to include a paper trail. But amid the vocal concern for the security of U.S. elections, there’s been little political will to make some of the most impactful changes.
“Unfortunately, I think the idea of security has basically been an excuse to limit access,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the Brennan Center’s Election Reform Program. “If we really want to ensure that our elections are trustworthy and transparent, we can do that without limiting access.”