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What election officials think about paper ballots and voting machines

During this election, early and absentee voting are expected to reach record levels, with mail-in ballots drawing significant attention as a result. President Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that voting by mail is not safe or reliable -- but what do election experts say is the best method? Miles O’Brien reports on the security of paper ballots compared to older voting machines.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Early voting is expected to reach record levels, and absentee or mail-in ballots are the focus, as you have been hearing, of a lot of attention.

    A new analysis by the Pew Research Center finds more than 60 percent of the registered voters supporting President Trump say they have little or no confidence that those ballots will be counted as voters intended. We just heard that from Dan.

    Miles O'Brien has been looking into how mail-in ballots are secured. And, tonight, he looks at how that option compares with older voting machines.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It's early on Election Day in Memphis, Tennessee, and commissioners from each party are working in pairs to unlock sealed steel boxes filled with absentee ballots.

  • Bennie Smith:

    This is this one says box 54 rejects.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Bennie Smith is a Democrat.

  • Bennie Smith:

    You have one central lock box that has a key for a Democrat, a key for a Republican, and nobody can get to the locks that unlocks the other locks unless you go through that chain.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    In an August election like this, they would normally receive about 1,000 absentee ballots.

    But on this pandemic summer morning, they have 16,000 to process and tally. For Bennie Smith, it's a COVID silver lining. He is a big proponent of hand-marked paper ballots, as opposed to voting machines.

  • Bennie Smith:

    I'm a fierce paper advocate. It is an authenticatable result, because you have the voter's intent. It's hand-eye coordination, and that's my selection process.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But for Shelby County's administrator of elections, Linda Phillips…

  • Linda Phillips:

    I, state your name.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    … the absentee deluge is a headache. Tennessee law prevented her from opening the envelopes until this moment. And there were all kinds of surprises.

  • Linda Phillips:

    This is the first time many voters in Tennessee have ever voted a paper ballot, and they did some really weird things to them.

    We had a large number of ballots where they would select a candidate, and then they'd write the name in again. But there was someone, we couldn't figure out what they wanted. One guy voted for 14 people in a race for one.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Miles O’Brien:

    That vote didn't count, but bipartisan teams labored to determine voter intent as best they could.

    The tea leaf reading occurred in Shelby County's election warehouse, where they store the voting machines they use in polling places.

  • Linda Phillips:

    I think machines help voters do a better job. It eliminates a lot of the mistakes that we see on paper ballots. And I prefer machines, because they're just more accurate.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Maybe, but it is impossible to know that for sure. Here in Shelby County, they use vintage 2000 devices made by Diebold Election Systems, a company no longer in business.

    These so-called direct-recording electronic machines, or DREs, are paperless, making it impossible to verify their accuracy. They and the networked machines that compile and tabulate the votes are an easy mark for hackers, which they have publicly proven time and again, most famously by white hat hacker Harri Hursti in the 2014 HBO documentary Hacking Democracy.

    In a demonstration, Hursti had little trouble flipping votes.

  • Woman:

    What is it? What is it? Seven yes, one no.

  • Woman:

    Oh, my God.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    In Memphis, efforts to buy new technology became mired in political debate and the pandemic. And yet few dispute the old machines are an Achilles' heel.

  • Bennie Smith:

    Software and hardware ages in dog years mixed with jet fuel, right? A piece of technology 20 years ago, just, like, imagine a BlackBerry 1 or a flip phone, a Sony Ericsson or something. If it's 20 years old, it's really outdated.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Bennie Smith knows from experience. He is an information technology expert on computer security.

    The DRE machines came into vogue after punch card ballots created chaos in the 2000 Bush vs. Gore election. By 2004, nearly one in three voters in the U.S. used DREs. But as the security vulnerabilities came to light, most jurisdictions got rid of them.

    In November, less than 10 percent of Americans will vote using DRE machines.

  • Christopher Krebs:

    The trend lines are solidly in favor of complete elimination of DREs.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Chris Krebs is director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security.

  • Christopher Krebs:

    So, we have a series of security controls that are in place that can harden those systems. But, ultimately, when you think about the riskiest bits of election systems, election infrastructure, to exploit these kinds of machines at scale to change an election outcome, incredibly complicated.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But, in New Hampshire, the secretary of state has long believed the simple way to thwart hackers is to avoid using computers.

  • Bill Gardner:

    We became the first state in the country that actually had a law that said that every voter in New Hampshire shall vote on a paper ballot.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Bill Gardner has held the job for 44 years, longer than anyone currently in office in the nation.

    I followed him as he made the rounds on state primary day in September. He did not meet a stranger. It felt like I had stepped into a Norman Rockwell painting of 19th century town meeting halls.

    When you became secretary of state, were you a firm believer in the power and accuracy of paper ballots, hand-marked paper ballots?

  • Bill Gardner:

    I was a believer. I'm a lot more of a believer after all these years. The more moving parts you have to the election process, the more problems you're going to have.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    So, you're old school and proud.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Miles O’Brien:

    They have tried machines here before. In the late 19th century, every town got one of these. With a crank, gears, cylinders and a bell, it counts ballots.

  • Bill Gardner:

    And you can see.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes.

  • Bill Gardner:

    See the counters?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Bill Gardner:

    Zero to nine.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Right.

  • Bill Gardner:

    So, it can get up to 999 ballots.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    At that time, the concept of a secret ballot was relatively new in the United States.

    Ever since, election officials have tried to preserve that secrecy, while maintaining accuracy and security. But, after all these years, there may not be a technological solution to that problem.

    Technology is not always the answer is it?

  • Bill Gardner:

    It's not been the answer with respect to elections. That's for sure. People have to have confidence. They have to have confidence that their vote counts.

    If you don't trust it, you're not going to make any effort to be a part of it. Not only that, but you're going to reject it.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    In Memphis, election commissioner Bennie Smith has similar worries. He says he cannot be certain whether votes captured on the old machines will truly count.

  • Bennie Smith:

    It's anybody's guess. Hopefully, it's going to count. As a sitting commissioner, obviously, I'm going to advocate for every accountable measure to make sure that it did. But it's not a great product for you right now.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    This election year, there has been a lot of political rhetoric that raises questions about the integrity of our elections.

  • President Donald Trump:

    This is going to be the scam of all time.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But the people who know best how we vote say paper ballots marked by hand, whether mailed in or filled out at a polling site, should be the least of our worries.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in Memphis, Tennessee.

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