Touchscreens with Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails (“VVPATs”) are almost as bad as paperless machines. Ballot Marking Devices (“electronic pencils”) are poised to follow in their dangerous path.

Jennifer Cohn
7 min readFeb 12, 2018


By Jennifer Cohn @JennyCohn1
Updated May 22, 2018

  1. One hundred experts in the areas of computer science, statistics, and election audits have recommended that states conduct their elections with paper ballots (which can be counted on either optical scanners or by hand). [letter from 100 experts]
  2. Paper ballots are recommended because they can be hand counted in a post-election recount or statistical audit and then compared to the electronic tally from the voting machine to determine whether hacking occurred.
  3. According to Verified Voting, however, the following states include at least some counties that instead conducted the 2016 election using Direct Recording Electronic (“DRE,” usually touchscreen) voting machines with or without so-called “Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails” (“VVPATS”) — i.e., computer marked paper scrolls.

4. Contrary to popular belief, VVPATs do not resemble paper ballots in form or function and, in fact, are almost as bad as paperless machines.

5. Researchers at UC Berkeley have explained that VVPATs “can be fragile and cumbersome to audit.”

6. In the 2006 primary election in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, for example, “10% of VVPAT spools were destroyed, blank, illegible, or missing.”, p. 1.

7. And an “election official in North Carolina reported that there were hundreds of printer failures in that state during the 2006 election. He cited a Georgia study about the logistical challenges of storing, tracking, and manually counting thousands of votes recorded on unwieldy rolls of paper tape.”

8. Moreover, a VVPAT “only becomes ‘voter verified’ if the voter knows –and takes the time– to check it.”

9. This is problematic because a Nevada study showed that less than 40 % of voters actually compared the audit trail to the screen upon which they voted.

10. In addition, even when VVPATs are reviewed, errors are unlikely to be caught. A Rice University study of “review screens” — which are easier to review than VVPATs — showed that “over 60% of voters do not notice if their votes as shown on the review screen are different than how they were selected. Entire races can be added or removed from ballots and voter’s candidate selections can be flipped and the majority of users do not notice.”, pp. 2–3.

11. Even if a voter finds a problem based on a review of the VVPAT, he or she is unlikely to do anything about it. Professor Ted Selker of MIT, who has studied VVPATs extensively, reports that, “In watching 500 voters casting ballots, I saw less than one in 10 people who, when they were told they had a problem with their ballot, were actually willing to take a new ballot and vote again.”

12. Moreover, a study conducted by CalTech/MIT found that “[o]ut of 108 elections that contained errors [in the VVPATs], … no errors were reported in the VVPAT audit.”

13. And a study by Rice University found that only 57.5% of participants’ counts using VVPATs provided the correct results.

14. Thus, although paperless DREs are 100% unverifiable, DREs with VVPATs have proven not much better:

“[P]eople don’t realize that voting machines with paper trail (VVPAT) are not much more secure than the ones without it. There are numerous studies showing that VVPAT is not a solution. Paper ballots are the only way to secure the elections.” — IT election expert Harri Hursti

15. Meanwhile, there’s a new, equally concerning touchscreen device in town. “Ballot Devices” (“BMDs”) are a type of “electronic pencil” that generates a computer marked ballot. States are beginning to buy them not just for those who are unable to hand mark their ballots (e.g., due to disability or old age), but rather for all voters.

16. Computer marked ballots are alarmingly similar to VVPATs in that voters may never review the computer marked ballots for accuracy (and may be reluctant to start over if they find an error), so that after an election it is impossible to know if any ballot has been verified.

17. Using computer-marked ballots for voters who are able to hand mark their ballots would also introduce a second layer of unnecessary and potentially problematic electronics and vendors. (BMD’s contemplate counting the computer-marked ballots on optical scanners, which constitute the first layer of electronics.)

18. Indeed, BMD’s have already been shown to have problems with vote flipping and vendor breach of certification requirements.

19. After Maryland tested BMDs for all in 2016, “all but one county opposed widespread use” because “VOTERS TOOK FAR LONGER to VOTE USING THE BMD THAN to MARK A PAPER BALLOT BY HAND. This caused lines of people waiting to use the BMD.” …

20. It would also be easier for someone to fake a large number of computer marked ballots than a large number of hand marked ballots.

21. Thus, even if BMD’s are an appropriate accommodation for those who are unable to hand mark their ballots, they should not be the primary system used for all voters. Rather, if election integrity is the goal, the primary system should be hand marked paper ballots, with enough BMD’s or other assisted devices to service those who are unable to hand mark their ballots.

22. Please note that if you want hand marked ballots, you must be specific and not use the general phrase “Voter Marked Ballots,” which can encompass computer marked ballots from BMDs as well.

23. Please also note that some lawmakers used the disabled community as a reason to promote paperless DREs for all voters — including non-disabled voters — in the wake of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which allocated billions of dollars for new voting systems.

24. For example, two years before pleading guilty to corruption involving bribes from Jack Abramoff — whose lobbying firm represented paperless DRE vendor Diebold Election Systems — Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio defeated legislation that would have required voting machines to include a paper trail. He used the disabled community to justify his untenable position and many lawmakers followed along. The result has been an unmitigated 15-year disaster for election integrity, which must not be repeated with BMDs.

25. Georgia is an example of a state that may be leaning toward buying BMDs for both disabled and non-disabled voters — in addition to the optical scanners that it also plans to buy to read the computer marked ballots from the BMDs. [discussion of recent pilot study using Ballot Marking Devices for both disabled and non-disabled voters].

26. The particular BMD under consideration in Georgia is the ES&S ExpressVote, which produces a computerized selections-only printout with bar codes at the top. It is the bar code portion, unreadable by humans, that the optical scanners read. (Image “Mock up” created by election integrity advocate Marilyn Marks.)

27. Experts say “bar codes on ballots…could give hackers a chance to rewrite results in ways that could not be traceable…”

28. Yet the Georgia legislature recently tried to pave the way for such bar-coded printouts (from ES&S ballot marking devices) via bill SB403. Thanks to the work of Georgia election integrity advocates and Marilyn Marks, an election integrity advocate who has filed a paper ballot suit in the State, SB403 was defeated. But some lawmakers and election officials remain receptive to these touchscreen ballot markers. If Georgia buys them, it will be one of the first states — if not literally the first — to buy such hackable electronic pencils (BMDs) for statewide use as primary voting system.

29. This should alarm you, even if you don’t live in Georgia. Georgia was also the voting machine vendors’ launching pad for paperless voting machines back in 2002. If the voting machine vendors manage to pass SB403 in Georgia, despite the legislative involvement of several national election integrity groups, they will be well positioned to pass such laws in other states.

30. If election integrity is the goal, we need hand marked paper ballots counted on optical scanners (or by hand at the precinct). Widespread use of BMDs is a terrible idea. Rather, BMDs should be limited to those voters who are unable to hand mark their ballots (one BMD per polling place)

31. As explained by @honlarryvaughn (an election integrity advocate on social media who uses this pseudonym), “[t]hey joke with the press about $5,000 pencils (which is horrifying enough) but nobody points out the obvious: real pencils can’t be hacked.”



Jennifer Cohn

Attorney and Election Integrity Advocate #ProtectOurVotes #PaperBallotsNow @jennycohn1