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Congressional hearing on election security: top takeaways

  • Emily Previti/PA Post
Attendees in Bucks County, Pa. test-drove new voting machines at an event aimed at helping the county decide which equipment to buy. Security is a major focus in the 2020 presidential race.

 Pam Fessler / NPR

Attendees in Bucks County, Pa. test-drove new voting machines at an event aimed at helping the county decide which equipment to buy. Security is a major focus in the 2020 presidential race.

In the push to abandon touchscreen voting machines after the 2016 election, paper ballots were often touted as a panacea for resolving any number of election security concerns. Paper ballots, after all, could be reviewed if electronically compiled results looked suspicious.

But paper ballots aren’t a foolproof solution, according to testimony from experts and voting machine vendors during a congressional hearing Thursday. 

Not all paper ballots are created equal, for one thing. And the people in charge of elections need to consider system components beyond voting machines (up to and including where parts of voting machines are manufactured). 

Thursday’s hearing, before the U.S. House of Representatives House Committee on House Administration, lasted more than two hours and will inform a committee report on election security anticipated in the coming weeks. 

You can watch proceedings here in full or read our highlights below. 

  • Paper ballots aren’t enough. Voters fill out paper ballots by hand or use a touchscreen machine that prints a filled-out ballot. The ballots are then scanned, and scanners are vulnerable to tampering or error, according to Matt Blaze, professor of law and computer science at Georgetown University Law School. Blaze told the committee that it’s basically impossible “to build software systems that can reliably withstand targeted attack by a determined adversary in this kind of an environment,” referring to continued concerns about the risk of foreign interference in U.S. elections. 

But Blaze testified that paper ballots provide the source material election officials can use to audit results after every election to confirm machine-tabulated vote totals match what’s reflected by hard copies. Ideally, he said, elections officials should use the “statistically rigorous” method known as a risk-limiting audit, or RLA, he says. Pennsylvania will be one of just a handful of states with risk-limiting audits when they’re fully implemented in 2022. Nevada is on the same timeline; California, Rhode Island and Virginia already require them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL also has info on states that provide for optional RLA’s). 

  • Not all paper ballots are created equal. Voters can fill out paper ballots by hand (filling in circles like school standardized tests), or use a touchscreen machine to make selections, with the machine then printing a paper record reflecting the vote. The latter method is done on machines known as ballot-marking, or BMDs. Blaze noted to the committee that BMDs were created to help voters who can’t mark their own ballots by hand for various reasons, including visual or auditory impairments. 

“[They] were never intended to be the primary method of voting,” Blaze said. 

The problem is that the touchscreens and printers that are part of a BMD machine add layers of technology — and opportunities for manipulation — between the voter and the final ballot that aren’t an issue with a pen-to-paper method. 

Voters in 18 Pa. counties are using BMDs, exclusively, or will be starting this year. Blaze and others who testified Thursday noted a study published the day before affirming past research that very few voters catch ballot errors when they use BMDs.

Juan Gilbert, who heads the University of Florida’s Computer & Information Science & Engineering Department, cautioned against making BMDs the only option for voters with disabilities: “An adversary finds that is a happy day. Because all you have to do is target a specific group.” 

Gilbert also suggested more strongly worded ballot checking instructions for voters to encourage scrutiny, such as prominent messaging to voters: “‘Verify that your ballot selections were not changed. Rather than, ‘Review your ballot.’” 

The most recent report on BMDs has additional tips, including how to track reported errors and set up precincts to encourage thorough ballot review.

  • The feds don’t have certification standards for electronic pollbooks, but Pa. is one of 14 states that does. Pollbooks contain voter registration information that election workers check when voters arrive at precincts on Election Day. Electronic pollbooks are digital versions (versus hard-copy lists) and are generally stored on laptops or tablet computers.

Pennsylvania not only requires manufacturers to complete testing and certification before they can sell their products to counties, but also requires pre-election logic and accuracy testing for e-pollbooks, according to a Center for American Progress report from 2018.  Jurisdictions in Pa. and many other states using digital pollbooks also have paper backups available at precincts on Election Day, CAP researchers found. Several states still use paper exclusively – including Maine, the only state where digital pollbooks are banned outright, according to NCSL.  

  • Voting vendor companies want more guidance and regulation from the federal government. The companies that make voting machines and tabulation systems say they want the feds to add guidelines for e-pollbooks and other election infrastructure aside from voting machines. They said they also want help securing their supply chains — a request that came up in response to lawmakers’ questions about voting system components made outside the United States

Officials from all three companies say their products are assembled here, but contain components – such as screens and chips – made in China (but not Russia, they specified). 

They also testified that it’s currently impossible to build devices made entirely of parts manufactured within the United States, echoing a joint statement issued last fall by five voting machine companies. 

Achieving that would require a “sea change in the global supply chain for the entire tech industry,” according to Hart InterCivic President & CEO Julie Mathis.

  • Ownership info forthcoming? Mathis appeared alongside Election Security & Software CEO Tom Burt and Dominion Voting System President & CEO John Poulos. Lawmakers on the committee asked the executives about company ownership, concerned that companies entrusted with carrying out elections should be transparent about the corporate interests that control them.

All three said private-equity accounts for at least three-quarters of each company’s ownership. Often, private equity investors or firms (hedge funds, in some cases) are chartered in ways that obscure or protect the identity of owners. But answering the committee’s concerns about transparency, the three leaders agreed to provide a list of individuals or entities with a stake of at least 5 percent in their respective companies. 

It’s unclear when the lists would be publicly available and whether officials will solicit them from the companies that did not have representatives at Thursday’s hearing. Pennsylvania, however, requires election system vendors to disclose ownership details.  PA Post on Jan. 6 filed a Right-To-Know request seeking that information for companies that sold systems in the state.




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