What is the latest threat to democracy? Bar-codes and ballot marking devices a.k.a. “electronic pencils.”

Jennifer Cohn
7 min readMar 7, 2018

By Jennifer Cohn (graphic by @cwnole92)
March 6, 2018 (Updated March 7, 2018)

A Ballot Marking Device (“BMD”) is a touchscreen computer that generates a computer marked paper ballot or printout, which is then counted on an optical scanner. (Those computer-marked ballots can also, in theory, be counted by hand, but generally are not, as most election officials rely on optical scanners instead.) BMDs were initially designed for people who are unable to hand mark paper ballots due to disability, old age, etc. But the state of Georgia and Los Angeles County, California are at the forefront of an unfortunate new trend, which is to consider buying these expensive hackable “electronic pencils” for all voters, regardless of need. [1]

Should Georgia and Los Angeles proceed to do so, it would introduce a second unnecessary and insecure computer above and beyond already insecure optical scanners, creating twice as many opportunities for electronic glitches, paper jams, and hacking. For example, some BMD’s have already had problems with:

  • vote flipping (when an election integrity advocate used such a device in Los Angeles, the device flipped 4 out of 12 of his selections) [2],
  • inability to display all candidates on one screen (a problem reported by the state of Maryland, which had acquired such systems for all voters, but changed its mind even though the screen problem was eventually fixed) [3], and
  • vendor breach of certification requirements (as occurred with vendor Election Systems & Software, “ES&S”)[4].

Meanwhile, two of the most popular BMD’s — the ES&S ExpressVote and the Dominion ImageCast — produce bar-coded printouts in lieu of traditional paper ballots.

This is alarming because computer experts say “barcodes on ballots…could give hackers a chance to rewrite results in ways that could not be traceable…” [5] As IT expert Harri Hursti explained to President Trump’s commission on election integrity, “certain vendors include barcodes into the ballots, and proper studies in my knowledge have not been made,” despite “the recent understanding how to use barcode as an attack vector…” [6] Also, the written portion of the BMD printout — which is supposed to correspond with the voter’s selections on the touchscreen — is not what the optical scanners actually count. Rather, the scanners count only the bar-coded portion of the printouts, which humans cannot read!

Moreover, the uncounted written portion of the printout cannot even be considered “verified” unless voters actually know and take the time to review it. [7] A Las Vegas survey found that “fewer than 40 percent of voters actually checked the paper record of their vote before leaving the polling place.” [8] Although the study concerned so-called Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails (“VVPATs”) from Direct Record Electronic (“DRE”) machines, there is no basis to assume that voters would be more inclined to check the paper records from BMDs.

Meanwhile, a Rice University study of voting machine “review screens” 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.” [9] Although this study concerned review screens, the study’s alarming results bode poorly for BMD printouts. Similar to review screens, BMD printouts appear only after voters have made all of their selections, thus requiring voters to tax their memories. Although voters may easily remember the top of the ticket races, they are unlikely to readily recall the many races and referendums further down the ballot, much less notice any discrepancies between the BMD printouts and their intended selections.

And here’s the kicker. Even if voters discover such discrepancies, they are unlikely to do anything about it. Professor Ted Selker of MIT 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.” [10]

Thus, even if computer marked ballots are a necessary accommodation for those who are unable to hand mark their ballots, it would be utterly irresponsible to make them the primary system for all voters. In the wake of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (which allocated billions of dollars for new voting systems), some used the disabled community as an excuse to buy insecure paperless Direct Recording Electronic (“DRE”) voting machines for all voters. [11] States thus rushed to buy these insecure machines in large numbers, padding the pockets of vendors and lobbyists, while creating a 15-year disaster of election integrity. [12] The disabled community has since called for the elimination of all DREs. [13] We must learn from our experience with DREs and not make the same mistake with BMDs. As explained by one election integrity advocate, “[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.” [14]

Update 3/7/18:

Soon after I posted this article on Twitter, a high ranking Colorado official dismissed as “anecdotal” the BMD vote-flipping experience referenced at the start of the article, advising that he has neither seen nor heard of such problems in Colorado. He did not dispute Hursti’s concern about bar codes, but implied that Colorado’s post-election risk limiting audits rendered moot any concerns about hacking.

I disagree. Although Colorado recently test piloted RLA’s statewide, most states do not require meaningful post-election audits. (https://medium.com/@jennycohn1/it-is-difficult-to-get-a-hand-recount-in-the-u-s-even-when-voting-machines-use-paper-ballots-3a9b65feea60, Paragraphs 10–12.) And even if they did, it would be irresponsible to allow the widespread use of unnecessary, expensive, and insecure BMD’s on the notion that meaningful post-election audits — if properly conducted — “should” be able to detect tampering. No thank you. States should try to preclude hacking from happening in the first place and conduct robust post-election audits. This should not be an either/or proposition.

I also added the following parenthetical to Paragraph 1 “(Those computer-marked ballots can also, in theory, be counted by hand, but generally are not, as most election officials rely on optical scanners instead.)”

And I added the following parenthetical to the first bullet point, though the citation/source remained the same: “(when an election integrity advocate used such a device in Los Angeles, the device flipped 4 out of 12 of his selections).”

Update 5/4/18: I added the citation and quote from Richard DeMillo of Georgia Tech to End Note 5.

End Notes

  1. http://politics.myajc.com/news/state--regional-govt--politics/exclusive-details-georgia-test-use-paper-ballots-elections/YyV47c41Q2MmbMcCc5F9OL/ [discussion of recent Georgia pilot study using Ballot Marking Devices for both disabled and non-disabled voters]; https://www.kqed.org/news/10743421/l-a-county-pilot-program-imagines-the-future-of-voting
  2. http://www.bradblog.com/?p=6043 [BMD in California flipped 4 out of 12 selections]
  3. http://editions.lib.umn.edu/electionacademy/2016/02/04/too-many-candidates-maryland-seeks-to-use-paper-ballots-in-early-voting-for-april-primary/ [Maryland to use opscans instead of its new BMD’s because the BMD’s can’t display all candidates on one screen — note that this particular issue was later fixed.]
  4. http://electiondefensealliance.org/2007/08/es_s_caught_uncertified_machines_ca_decertification_may_result [ES&S caught making changes to BMD’s without obtaining certification or permission]
  5. https://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2017/09/no_such_thing_as_an_unhackable_voting_machine.html; https://twitter.com/search?q=DeMillo%20barcodes&src=typd [Professor Richard DeMillo: “Despite the recent fascination with electronic ballot markers that print bar codes for scanning ballots, bar codes have no place in Georgia’s election system. They introduce a whole new class of vulnerabilities.”]
  6. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/images/Unedited%20Transcript%20for%20September%2012%2C%202017%20Meeting%20in%20New%20Hampshire.pdf, p. 113
  7. https://www.verifiedvoting.org/resources/vvpr-legislation/
  8. https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2007/04/congress-finally-considers-aggressive-e-voting-overhaul/
  9. http://chil.rice.edu/research/pdf/EverettDissertation.pdf, pp. 2–3
  10. https://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/96553/vtp_wp16.pdf?sequence=1, p. 10
  11. https://www.wired.com/2004/10/diebold-and-the-disabled/ [“In the controversy over electronic voting machines, activists for disability groups have been at the forefront of campaigns to convince counties and states to purchase touch-screen voting systems.”];http://www.larouchepub.com/other/2004/3111hava_debate.html [letter from Representative Bob Ney using the disabled community as an excuse to preclude paper trails; Ney later went to prison for accepting bribes from a lobbyist whose firm represented Diebold, a vendor of paperless voting machines]; https://www.eff.org/wp/accessibility-and-auditability-electronic-voting [“[A] recent lawsuit filed on behalf of AAPD and others claims that ‘only DRE systems, when properly equipped, are accessible and enable voters who are disabled to vote independently, unassisted and in secret.’”]; https://www.wired.com/2003/11/dust-up-over-e-vote-paper-trail/ [“The California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, or CACEO, led by Shasta County Clerk Ann Reed, called the decision [to require a paper audit trail] “a major defeat for the disabled community, as well as the minority-language communities.”]; http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/bal-md.machines29mar29-story.html [“Advocates for visually impaired voters are concerned that the paper trail requirement will strip them of their right to a secret ballot…”]; https://books.google.com/books?id=XR21acqXy28C&pg=PA161&lpg=PA161&dq=DREs+blind+touchscreens&source=bl&ots=bKjbw2-0WK&sig=T0sJRg83H-oaAPsNJ1tMozcKjkw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwib0dWa54_ZAhWl7YMKHZZcAEUQ6AEIVjAJ#v=onepage&q=DREs%20blind%20touchscreens&f=false , p. 161
  12. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/should-primary-voters-be-worried-about-aging-voting-machines [initially, 70% of the machines bought under HAVA were DREs]
  13. http://electiondefensealliance.org/2007/03/disability_voter_advocates_call_ban_dres [“BLIND AND DISABLED VOTER ADVOCATES, GROUPS CALL FOR ‘IMMEDIATE BAN’ OF DRE VOTING SYSTEMS!”]
  14. https://twitter.com/search?q=%40honlarryvaughn%20nobody%20points%20out&src=typd



Jennifer Cohn

Attorney and Election Integrity Advocate #ProtectOurVotes #PaperBallotsNow @jennycohn1