Electronic Voting Machine Debacle Continues in 2019, Setting Dangerous Precedent for 2020

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

As readers know, I’m a strong advocate of hand-marked paper ballots (HMPB), hand-counted in public (HMPB-CP), and we’ve periodically written on this topic at NC; see HMPB-CP in Quebec (2012), paper ballots in India (2016), a review of the literaure (2018), Virginia’s return to paper ballots (2017), “ballot marking devices” and corruption when electronic voting machines are chosen (2019), and problems with the “cyber” approach to elections (2020).

Now a Bloomberg article, “Expensive, Glitchy Voting Machines Expose 2020 Hacking Risks,” gives me the chance to review the condition of our election macninery in 2019. Bloomberg is suitably appalled by the choice of voting machines, but a little wide-eyed and naive about the local officials making those choices, and covers two important players badly: First, the owners of the electronic voting machine compaines, to whom it gives only a passing glance; second, the intelligence community, at which it does not look at all.

First, the good in Bloomberg. The technical superiority of HMPBs is recognized:

Security experts say the cheapest, and to their minds, most reliable and hack-proof method to cast votes also happens to be the lowest tech: paper ballots marked by hand and fed through scanners (no chads) to tally the results. They have called for replacing computerized equipment—particularly paperless older models—with the decidedly Luddite alternative.

The devices have “raised far more security questions than paper ballots because you have a potentially hackable computer standing between the voter and the record,” said J. Alex Halderman, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan, adding that without sufficient research, these new machines could be “a waste of money.”

(Personally, I’m a strong advocate of the lowest tech solution of all: eliminating digital from the equation entirely with HMPB-CP, as in Quebec, since anything digital can be hacked, and that includes scanners. However, I recognize that scanners, being simpler, are easier to debug and to validate. Some scanners are programmable; others are not. Crossed fingers.)

Further, Bloomberg presents this handy chart to show that introducing HMPB’s save money:

(I’m a little amazed at seeing an institution with the word “cyber” in its name supporting a low-tech solution; that speaks very well of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security & Citizens for Better Elections.) One would like to think that cash-strapped localities would leap at the chance to save money, but apparently not. Still Bloomberg:

Cybersecurity experts are baffled by local election officials choosing the computerized voting machines. “It’s a mystery to me,” said Rich DeMillo, a Georgia Tech computer science professor and former Hewlett-Packard chief technology officer. “Does someone have 8 x 10 glossies? No one has been able to figure out the behavior of elections officials. It’s like they all drink the same Kool-Aid.”

The animus is mutual. At conferences, election administrators swap complaints about cyber experts treating them like idiots, said Dana DeBeauvoir, head of elections in Travis County, Texas, whose office purchased a computerized system DeMillo deplores. Hand-marked ballots are “a supremely horrible idea” cooked up by people in Washington “who have never had to really conduct an election,” she said.

Scientists, for whatever reason, seem to be doing about as well in the persuasion department here as they have done on climate. To be fair to them, some local officials clearly are idiots, at least if you take their words at face value. How does DeBeauvoir think that votes were counted before voting machines? By carving numbers on stone tablets?

Be that as it may, there’s a very simple explanation for our baffled scientists (and that they are baffled also speaks well of them): corruption. Bloomberg tiptoes up to this point, first writing:

Winning over the nation’s election administrators to [HMPB] is no simple task. They are splintered among thousands of state and local governments and often lobbied by privately held election companies anxious for sales, as taxpayers tend to pay for new voting equipment only once a decade.

(Bloomberg also gingerly writes “privately held” instead of “private equity,” which we’ll get to in a moment.) Well, “lobbied” how, exactly? Bloomberg finally unwraps the veil a few more paragraphs down:

In Philadelphia, a three-person election commission discounted cybersecurity warnings and, in February, selected ExpressVote XL from [voting machine vendor Election Systems & Software (ES&S)] after a massive lobbying effort. It has a 32-inch touchscreen at a cost of $29 million, or $27.59 per voter, not including roughly $3.8 million over 10 years in fees.

But the decision raised suspicions. State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale noted that the request for proposals appeared to favor equipment of the XL’s type and size. An investigation by City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart later found that ES&S had courted the tiny commission for six years, spending almost half a million dollars lobbying it. The company paid a $2.9 million penalty—the highest in Philadelphia history—for failing to disclose lobbying on bid documents, according to the city controller’s office.

Half a million bucks buys a lot of steak dinners in Philly; I’m not surprised that ES&S got a happy resuit (and only had to give the city a 10% cut!). But this should not be surprising; see more examples from Pennsylvania, and a really spectacular example from Georgia, which Bloomberg fails to mention.

But here is the first place that Bloomberg falls down: It doesn’t put ES&S in context, institutionaly. Let’s do that now.

Private Equity and Voting Machines

This post from activist Jennifer Cohn at Medium is well-worth reading: “America’s Electronic Voting System is Corrupted to the Core“:

Just two vendors — Election Systems & Software, LLC (ES&S) and Dominion Voting — account for eighty percent of US election equipment. Thus, corrupt insiders or foreign hackers could wreak havoc on elections throughout the United States by infiltrating either of these vendors.

I know which threat I think is greater, and we should call a spade a bloody shovel, here: Corrupt insiders. The issues are all known; I’ve remember voting machine scandals going back to 2004, back when Diebold — remember Diebold? — and nothing has changed or been solved (except the technical advantages of HMPB-CP have gone from strong to overwhelming, because the science has gotten better). The real issue is this: Election fraud is a selling point for electronic voting machines. That’s why neither party wants to get rid of them. More:

ES&S and Dominion are both owned by private equity, which means we don’t know who funds and controls them. And what little we do know is concerning.

A long list of horrid stuff follows, most, again, known since 2004, since election machines had been installed in many states after the debacle of Florida 2000, and HAVA. Here’s one highlight for ES&S:

ES&S, which by itself accounts for 44 percent of US election equipment, received its initial financing from the families of Nelson Bunker Hunt and Howard Ahmanson, Jr., right-wing billionaires who also contributed substantially to the Chalcedon Foundation, Christian Reconstruction’s main think tank.

Imagine if you were a conservative and 44% of the market was held by George Soros, working through the Center for American Progress (and I suppose if the liberal Democrats are anything but a pathetically dysfunctional gaggle of losers who just want to cash their checks and not govern, something like that would already have happened. As so often, conservatives are admirably simple and direct when they sense a chance for power.)

And as for Dominion:

Compared to ES&S, even less is known about Dominion, which accounts for 37 percent of US election equipment. Dominion was a Canadian company that became a major player in US elections when the Department of Justice forced ES&S to sell some of Diebold’s assets because the combined ES&S/Diebold company had accounted for a whopping 70 percent of US election equipment. It was Dominion that rose from obscurity to buy those Diebold assets in 2010. We don’t know if Dominion is related to ES&S, or if it’s a legitimate competitor because it is also owned by private equity. What we do know is that Dominion does its programming in Serbia. And a former executive of GTech/IGT — an international gaming company and former Paul Manafort client — joined Dominion as a Senior Vice President in June 2016.

There isn’t anything about private equity controlling our election machinery that doesn’t smell.

The Intelligence Community and Elections

And now we come to the intelligence community. Here my concerns are not so much cheap and sleazy skullduggery at the local level, but Constitutional. Let me start with this Tweet:

Why am I not re-assured? Besides the fact that whenever I see anybody in front of one of those big screen-ready colored backdrops filled with logos, wearing one of those hands-free speakers mikes, and smiling, my back teeth start to itch. My back teeth itch even more when I read stuff like “Joint Statement from DOJ, DOD, DHS, DNI, FBI, NSA, and CISA on Ensuring Security of 2020 Elections.” Let me quote a great slab of this, adding helpful annotations:

In an unprecedented level of coordination, the U.S. government is working with all 50 states and U.S. territories, local officials, and private sector partners[1] to identify threats, broadly share information, and protect the democratic process[2]. We remain firm in our commitment to quickly share timely and actionable information, provide support and services, and to defend against any threats[3] to our democracy.

Our adversaries want to undermine our democratic institutions, influence public sentiment[4] and affect government policies. Russia, China, Iran, and other foreign malicious actors all will seek to interfere in the voting process or influence voter perceptions[5]. Adversaries may try to accomplish their goals through a variety of means, including social media campaigns, directing disinformation operations or conducting disruptive or destructive cyber-attacks on state and local infrastructure[6].

While at this time we have no evidence of a compromise or disruption to election infrastructure that would enable adversaries to prevent voting, change vote counts or disrupt the ability to tally votes, we continue to vigilantly monitor any threats to U.S. elections.

The U.S. government will defend our democracy and maintain transparency[7] with the American public about our efforts. An informed public is a resilient public. Americans should go to trusted sources for election information, such as their state and local election officials[8]. We encourage every American to report any suspicious activity to their local officials, the FBI, or DHS[9]. In past election cycles, reporting by Americans about suspicious activity provided valuable insight which has made our elections more secure. The greatest means to combat these threats is a whole-of-society effort.

My concerns:

[1] Private equity ES&S and Dominion? Amazon? Google? Facebook? Twitter? Who, exactly?

[2] I bet the national security apparatchiks have a definition for “the democratic process,” and I would love to see what it is. I mean, how can the intelligence community overthrow democratic governments if they don’t know what they are?

[3] Any? Billionaires? The DNC, or to be fair, the RNC?

[4] Josiah Bartlet would be very upset!

[5] Well, that’s globalization for ya. Information everywhere.

[6] This is actually good. Hardened voter rolls and HMPB-CP are good, and a small office, say in the Justice Department, could handle this. We certainly don’t need six three letter agencies (that we know of) and one four-letter agency to handle this. (You probably need a large effort to secure whatever crapified software Dominion’s Serbian body shop has come up with, but this is a self-inflicted problem. To revise Stalin: When there’s software, there’s a problem. When there’s no software, there’s no problem.” Or as Gordon Bell said: “The cheapest, fastest and most reliable components of a computer system are those that aren’t there.” Of course, there aren’t any government contracts either. So there’s that.

[7] lol.

[8] Except for the ones corrupted by private equity, which is far more dangerous than the dastardly Russkis, both to our elections, and in general.

[9] For example, 100,000 people disappearing from the voter rolls in the Democrat stronghold of Brooklyn.

[10] You’d think the concept of the intelligence community mobilizing “the whole of society” would make any sane person scream and run. Even the Stasi and the KGB couldn’t do that. But no.

But horrid as the concerns enumerated above are, they are not my central concern. Suppose that in 2020, as in 2000 and 2004, we have one or more states where the vote is close, and electronic voting has led to a suspect and contested result. (This could happen on the day itself, or — putting on my tinfoil hat, here — through stories from the usual anonymous sources about hacking in the run-up to election day.) We would have in essence a penalty flag thrown, and it would be up to a referee to review the play and make an assessment. In 2004, there was no referee, because Kerry simply conceded the game[1]. In 2000, the referees were the State of Florida, its election officials and Supreme Court, and then the United States Supreme Court, where Antonin Scalia, of blessed memory, picked the winner, George W. Bush. Who would the referee be in 2020? If “an unprecedented level of coordination” means what I think it means, the intelligence community — not necessarily limited to the agencies listed, either — would be the referee. I’m not sure I find that idea reassuring, and I deeply hope I’m being too paranoid.


Remember HR 1, the Democrat flagship, the “For the People Act of 2019”? We rewrite HR1 to mandate that state and local officials use HMPB, ideally HMPB-CP (fund the counters, if we must), and abolish electronic voting machines entirely. Private equity would squawk, but let ’em.


[1] From Cohn: “John Kerry has since said that his own campaign suspected electronic vote tally manipulation during the 2004 election in Ohio, but decided against ‘dividing the country’ with a court challenge.” With a decision like that, Kerry showed why he deserved not to be President. I remember that election well, because I live-blogged in when I lived in Philly. I went to bed thinking Kerry would challenge the Ohio result — see here for the horrid detail, the case was made contemporaneously — and got up in the morning, and he had decided he’d rather not. IIRC after he had raised money for the court challenge. See also here, from the local Ohio Press. Hilariously, as we see today, Kerry knew nothing of division.

APPENDIX: More Voting Machine Debacles from Election 2019

Here’s some cursory research:

Georgia. Georgia’s new voting machines buggy in Tuesday’s election debut:

Glitches with check-in pads and ballot selection screens that turned off on their own delayed voters Tuesday in six Georgia counties that pilot tested the state’s $107 million new voting machines.

Election officials in Bartow, Carroll, Catoosa, Decatur, Lowndes and Paulding counties reported technical issues with new equipment, either with electronic entry points or with the new ballot-marking machines themselves….

Voters in five counties experienced problems with new check-in devices, called “poll pads,” caused by a programming error that prevented them from using electronic ballot-marking machines. In three counties, some ballot-marking machines were pulled offline when they shut down and rebooted themselves.

The off-year election for cities and counties drew a light turnout Tuesday, which placed less pressure on county poll workers to resolve problems with the check-in devices or use paper ballots until technicians fixed the problem. Enough machines were on hand to replace equipment with the reboot malfunction.

New York. Some Election Day problems related to early voting system. Plenty of shenanigans here for those who remember how the Brooklyn voter rolls were purged in 2016, but for voting machines in particular:

[S]ome polling places upstate reported problems in connecting their electronic tablets to a secure internet service

“A secure internet service.” Are we [family blogging] children?

Pennsylvania. Twitchy touchscreens, tiny font, button confusion: Did Philly’s new voting machines pass their test?

[P]eople all over the city have reported issues with voting via the new devices…. Among the issues: the font size on the printed ballot. Feinstein had trouble reviewing his selections because the voting booth was dimly lit, he said, and he couldn’t make out the small type…. ‘People’s puffy coats are causing them to select or deselect candidates when they rub against the screen,’ the inspector told WHYY.

C’mon, Philly in November. Who’s gonna be wearing a puffy coat?

Pennsylvania. York County election chief to resign, recount to come after busted election:

Election results were delayed because of a shortage of ballot-counting scanners and technical glitches, which caused long lines, incorrect paper ballot sizes and many voters not knowing how to use the new machines, officials have said.

You shouldn’t even need a scanner. And you shouldn’t have to train voters to vote, ffs.

Texas. Long lines, downed machines, paper jams. Are Tarrant’s voting machines ready for 2020?

Some machines just didn’t seem to work. Others had glitches, such as paper jams when ballots were fed into scanners. In some cases, ballots didn’t print properly. And at least a few visually impaired voters found no audio or private way to cast their ballots.

These were among the problems reported in Tarrant County on Election Day, when more than 85,000 voters cast ballots for the first time on new $11 million election machines.

At some polling sites, some or all of the voting machines were down.

Not to worry. I’m sure the “down” voting machines were randomly distributed.

And just for fun, here’s a horrid scandal from Alberta, Canada. Voters had to use PINs. What could go wrong?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. norm de plume

    The contrast between the 24/7 effort to impeach the President in order to protect democracy and the complete absence of major media attention to this existential threat to the mechanics of American democracy is shocking but certainly not surprising. Maybe some of those PE owners also belong to the media owning classes.

    And that Joint Statement, wow. It really has to be read by one of those guys that voices trailers for Hollywood thrillers. I assume ‘precious bodily fluids’ was blue-penned in the approval process. The official language of American bureaucracy is increasingly infected with this sort of stentorian bone-headedness.

    When I first saw Dr Strangelove, I was curiously unmoved by it. Amused, sure; but it seemed too OTT to have any purchase on my political imagination.

    Not any more.

  2. pricklyone

    Not to disagree with the thrust, here, just need to point out the guy blaming ” dimly lit booth” for his inability to read tiny type…on a backlit touchscreen!
    >>>. Feinstein had trouble reviewing his selections because the voting booth was dimly lit, he said, and he couldn’t make out the small type….>>
    (From the Alberta story, which was about intraparty leadership voting)

    1. kimyo

      i have family members who have difficulty reading from led screens, regardless of how bright they are. this wouldn’t ever happen with properly designed paper ballots.

        1. Matt

          What if the paper is sourced from Russia? I hear that the Russian paper has a mind control apparatus the makes people vote for anti war candidates like Tulsi Gabbard or Donald Trump! We need these Serbian voting machines to save the American people from voting for less war!

          Don’t forget about ElectionGuard from Microsoft either. It is apart of the “Defending Democracy Program.” We all know that government programs always end up doing what their title says they are going to do. For example, The Affordable Car Act made health insurance more affordable. The FISA act did a great job limiting the government’s ability to spy on it’s citizens. The Justice Department has done a wonderful job of applying the law equally to all people and politicians. I am sure we can trust the Defending Democracy Program to do what it was named to do as well.

    2. donw

      It mentioned font-size on paper ballots just before that. It makes it hard to figure out whether it was referring to a printed receipt rather than a screen.

      In either case, I have found that with my “just starting to deteriorate with age” eyesight, something that is blurry on my phone in the dark sharpens when I turn on a light. Same with reading off paper. I am not an optometrist or expert in optics but I suspect that pupil dilation impacts image clarity in the eye. So, it is not surprising to me that a dimly lit booth would impact legibility of small print.

  3. Carl

    Just to add a bit of fuel to the fire, one of the reasons Bolivia is having a replay of their presidential election is voting irregularities caused by computerized voting systems.

  4. Synoia

    The U.S. government will defend our democracy and maintain transparency….

    Defend from whom? The voters. Maintain Transparency – true machine counting votes is transparently dishonest.

    Something about “agency” seems missing.

  5. TheCatSaid

    This really made my eyes boggle:

    While at this time we have no evidence of a compromise or disruption to election infrastructure that would enable adversaries to prevent voting, change vote counts or disrupt the ability to tally votes, we continue to vigilantly monitor any threats to U.S. elections.

    Wow. There have been countless examples of evidence of all these things! Over >20 years!
    Many books written, articles, scholarly research, etc. Much has been documented on previous NC posts & comments.

    The report that said such a blatant falsehood only confirms why they should not be trusted.

    AND a warning to paper ballot advocates (myself among them!)–Securing the Chain of Custody of the ballots (both blank and voted!) is a HUGE DEAL. It is difficult to attain and very few do it well. (Look at NH if you want to see it done poorly. Vans videotaped with ballot-changing gear inside; ballot storage areas & ballot boxes “pretend-sealed” with removable tape, etc. ) There is no point getting paper ballots if they are not secured through the whole chain of custody. There is also no point having paper ballots if state or local constitutions prevent them from being viewed, or prevent remedies when there are obvious discrepancies.

    Remember, to throw an election one often only needs to change a few votes per polling places! Knowing how to do this skillfully is regrettably something that political operatives specialize in, and this can be done with paper ballots as well as with machine voting.

  6. ambrit

    This is an example of the degrading effects of the privatization of any public function. Not the hardware, but the programming. Elections are supposed to be public events, run by and for the electorate. Being elected positions, those making the decisions regarding the simpler and more robust voting methods have the threat of being voted out by an enraged public if the ‘officials’ mess things up. Electronic voting cedes this power and responsibility to private ‘persons’ who have no direct responsibility to the voting public. The companies are beholden to the elected officials via business contracts. This arms length relationship somewhat insulates the elected officials from any wrong doing or incompetence that occurs in the actual elections. The officials can blame ‘irregularities’ on third parties and claim innocence of wrongdoing. The third parties can fold their tents and then reconstitute under a new name and return to business as usual.
    I fear that “Criminogenic Environment” has become the new normal in politics as well as business.
    The old guard Neos championed the devolution and dispersal of governance in America. They advocated thus for just about everything except voting, the bedrock of representative government. Go figure.

  7. Titus

    Lambert, that was a lot of work and I thank you. As I know that you like feedback, as you ask for it, I’d like to know why you keep pounding on these two themes, whatever the subject and where ever the chance, they are:

    1] I bet the national security apparatchiks have a definition for “the democratic process,” and I would love to see what it is. I mean, how can the intelligence community overthrow democratic governments if they don’t know what they are?

    2] Josiah Bartlet would be very upset!

    1 → has yet to be proven, and even if true when hasn’t this been true? By which I mean the powerful have always influenced who was in charge. If any president actual is. I have my doubts.

    2 → never watched it. Don’t care about it. I’m all in with Bernie & AOC. But the problem is the Senate.

    As to Kerry, you want to know exactly what happened it Ohio and why it didn’t happen to Barry, I mean Obama? Why were voting machines running and restoring machine backups while voting was still going on?

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > why you keep pounding on these two themes

      Because the factional alliance of intelligence community + liberal Democrats + their assets in the press is a continuing story and an interesting development in “our democracy.” Sure, the powerful have always been powerful, if I may so paraphrase your point, but the forms matter, as does the correlation of forces between this axis and others. As for the Senate, I don’t know what “the problem” might be. Sanders says “the problem” is the billionaire class. Since we live in an oligarchy, that’s likely to be true (i.e., we have greater problems than turning the Senate Blue (no doubt with quasi-Republicans like Manchin and Jones). On Ohio, see the provided links.

      1. Hepativore

        I wonder if another large part of the reason for reluctance to abandon digital voting, is that for the companies that make the voting machines, this is another great opportunity for spying by private companies for the sake of data collection. Being able to see what demographics voted for whom in an area would be an information goldmine for private companies to sell to advertisers, as well as intelligence agencies like the NSA and CIA. Voting a certain way or in an area might allow companies to sell you more targeted adds or being put on a secret intelligence community watchlist due to having “subversive” political views.

        The above would all be highly illegal, but that has never stopped either private companies or the intelligence community before. In fact, voting a certain way might even eventually make it difficult to find a job if future employers can determine your political leanings by the background checks they conduct before they hire you and strongly disagree with them.

      2. JohnH

        The real constitutional crisis will come when Trump insists as staying on as President because he uncovers electronic voting machine tampering by the intelligence community. Liberal Democrats and their assets in the press go bonkers … as do all those gun-toting Trump supporters.

        For a precedent, see the coup in Bolivia.

        Who will the military support?

  8. RB


    Written by someone who doesn’t and hasn’t ever worked polls…

    It’s an enormous undertaking already. You have to 1.) recruit volunteers to take a work day off; 2.) train them (1-3 days, after-hours, so that’s overtime for your election board employees); 4.) pay these poll watchers a modest stipend to sit there, all day, even for the sleepiest poll stations (all of which require, at least 6 people each, in my experience); 5.) store hundreds of thousands of paper ballots for years at time depending on the local laws. Keep in mind, poll workers must count, by hand, transport, and sign-off unanimously on the results before they can be counted and be considered official. This takes HOURS AND HOURS! There is a clear reason why they want a digital option: it makes this gargantuan task SIMPLER.

    1. Qufuness

      The Brexit vote took place on June 23 2016, polls closed at 22:00, and the final results were announced at 7:20 the next morning. We’re talking about 33.5 million ballots here. British readers please correct me if I’m wrong, but in UK the voting is almost entirely done the traditional way–on paper ballots. Here’s a description of how the votes are counted in Britain.


      The process doesn’t appear to entail extraordinary expenses, and obviously it’s fast. Counting the votes for the 2016 primary in my home state of California took over a month, and the counting was surrounded by irregularities, whether in spite of or because of the use of voting machines. The counting was also allegedly slowed down by the increasing use of absentee ballots. Living in Tokyo I have no choice but to use absentee ballots to vote in the US. I wonder what Lambert’s and other readers’ views are on absentee ballots are.

      1. Clive

        Entirely correct. There is no electronic voting whatsoever.

        Hand. Marked. Paper. Ballots. Hand. Counted. In. Public.

        We’ve got another election underway, a 50-something million franchise if I recall correctly. There’s a Statutory 25 working day timeframe to get everything ready. Local government has plans, contractors, budget and logistics all ready in place on a permanent basis to handle votes. As you say, the results are known within a few hours.

        They (U.K. elections) cost around €110M (let’s say $150M) based on the last EU parliamentary election https://www.euronews.com/2019/05/07/the-eu-elections-in-the-uk-which-were-never-meant-to-be so the US equivalent would be c. $500M. I’d say $125M a year averaged out for every four year presidential election could just about be squeezed out of a $20T economy, if someone looked behind the couch to find that sort of loose change.

        And as an anecdote, when I was working in a bank branch, the local authorities approached bank employees who were tellers to work on the count. We got a little over minimum wage, plus travel. Most were happy to do a little extra work, each a smidge of money to bolster our not great wages and generally enjoy the excitement of the experience. There were a couple of hundred of us at the count I did in 1992 and we got six hours pay, so in today’s money that would by about £60. The vote counters cost would work out at £12,000. That was for one parliamentary constituency (around 120,000 registered voters) which was one of the 650 total. Not, then, much more than the electronic voting machines cost, if it was in fact greater. There’s no pricing transparency for the cost of the voting machines but I’d bet it was $2,000 each. And the cost of getting them where they need to be and set up, connected and tested isn’t free, either.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          > where they need to be

          And goodness, sometimes they are where they “need” to be, which isn’t where voters, especially poor or minority voters, are. But the long lines keep the vote down, so it’s all good.

          Not an issue if all you need is some floorspace and voting booths and ballots and pencils.

          1. Clive

            Plus “breakdowns” for handmarked paper ballots can be fixed by someone going to the nearest store (or having a rummage round in their bags or pockets) for a pen that works.

            Paper jams can be fixed by jiggling your paper in the little slot in the box, or folding it a bit neater.

            And when I was a vote counter, that one time, no-one, Russian or otherwise, attempted to meddle with me.

    2. ambrit

      Not to cast aspersions, but, this looks to be an artifact of the “modern” fetish for short term thinking.
      What says that voting has to be lightening quick? What demands that voting be “easy” on the people who run the polls? What demands that voting be done as cheaply as possible?
      In what purports to be an assertion of the popular will, what requires the primacy of expediency over accuracy? This exercise, the vote, is at the root of the ‘democratic’ ideology. It must not only be protected from manipulation and subornation, but it must also be seen to be pristine.
      This is no trivial matter.

    3. Jen

      Georgia spent $107 million on new voting machines. That’s just one state. Seems like one could pay a lot of poll workers, trainers, poll watchers, election board overtime, pay for the storage space required and still have money left over. As an added bonus, all of that money would stay in the community, rather than go to some private equity behemoth.

      As for taking HOURS and HOURS, why is it so important to have instant results?

        1. Ignacio

          In Spain we have manual ballot counting and results are ready in about 3 hours. All the parties are present during the polling and counting.

      1. Clive

        The rapid availability of the result isn’t an extra-cost option, it’s a free-of-charge convenience which is an inherent feature of a well-run hand marked ballot, hand counted election!

      2. fajensen

        As for taking HOURS and HOURS, why is it so important to have instant results?

        This: One needs to know the intermediate results quickly ‘as-they-happen’ to learn which votes to move in the counts that are not finalised yet, when one wants to be successful in ‘massaging’ election results. With manual counting there is simply too little time to fix the results once the trend becomes known.

    4. HotFlash

      1.) recruit volunteers to take a work day off; 2.) train them (1-3 days, after-hours, so that’s overtime for your election board employees);

      Make Election Day a holiday.

    5. kiwi

      What is more important to you?

      Correct results or easily hackable systems with easily questionable results.

      And how did the Republic do this before computers came along?

      AI has way too much power.

    6. mael colium

      The Australian system is 100% paper and unless the outcome is extraordinarily tight, a result is usually known before bed time. This is not a first past the post system, as in the UK, but a complete count. All the polling booths are manned by paid volunteers who are subject to intense security checks months before and after the polling day. All ballots are hand collected, secured and counted. Scrutineers are at all booths and privacy is absolute. Voters are checked through and hand marked off the roll . There is very little chance of corruption in the system because of the recounts and self checks imposed by the Electoral Commission, which is the single body responsible for all government ballots. Any marginal boot outcomes are recounted to ensure human error is eliminated. The Australian people have complete faith in the electoral system, and even the political class are loath to change what is a trusted system, so any attempt by propeller heads to introduce digital voting never gets beyond a casual brain fart before it gets stomped on by all and sundry. Even postal and pre-poll day voting is scorned as it has the impact of delaying a result as counted is not permitted until poll day. The last election resulted in an alarming number of postal votes to the extent that a groundswell of support to reduce it to only those folks not in the country at the time will likely be the only permitted postal vote. This is democracy working.
      Don’t tell me it can’t be done!

  9. The Rev Kev

    A really good article this. I first heard about voting machine shenanigans with the 2000 Florida election when 20,000 Democrat votes disappeared and then reappeared as Republican votes or candidates aligned with the Republicans. But Al Gore never made an issue of this so I guess that this made it legal or something. But scanners should not be needed to simply count votes as that adds in a layer that you cannot verify simply by sight. I have taken part in a number of elections and I am here to say that if you have people at the polls who know how to count without taking off their shoes, then people should do the counting. With representatives from the political parties standing by as observers to cut out the funny business. I do not know what US ballot papers look like but the Senate ones here in Oz are about a yard wide but we can still count them just fine.
    If local election officials keep choosing the computerized voting machines, then that is probably due to pressure from above. For the Democrats that would be the DNC which means that this is what their donors are telling them what they must do. But as an employment program for a whole bunch of techies and consultants and managers this is really a great boon. Only thing is that democracy suffers but we are talking real money here. There is evidence to suggest that Gore should have won in 2000, Kerry in 2004 and Romney in 2012 (for different reasons) but these electoral parasites still made their money regardless.
    I’ll expand on that a bit. In 2004 during the Presidential elections it came down to whoever won Ohio would win the Presidency. It was going Kerry’s way when late at night the servers crashed. As per the backup plan, Chattanooga servers took over and suddenly the results had been magically reversed. But Kerry did an Al Gore and did not protest this so Bush got a second term. Hellajulla. And there was Karl Rove off to the side nodding knowingly. But then a funny thing happened in 2012 when Obama was fighting Romney. The votes in Ohio indicated that Obama was going to win. Karl Rove had a melt down about the reported results and Fox news actually walked to the backroom boys for a confirmation-


    So why the significance? At almost to the minute from eight years previously, the Ohio servers went down again but this time no votes changed. Afterwards the group Anonymous claimed credit by saying that they had arranged a firewall to stop the voting going out of State once again to be flipped. Was it Anonymous? Who can tell? It could have been. It could have been the deep state protecting Obama as he was giving them all that they wanted. The article detailing all this, for what it is worth, I give below-


  10. Tomonthebeach

    My entire career I used paper questionnaires to diagnose organizational health – mostly in the government – mostly huge numbers of surveys (10s of thousands). The electronic scanning technology has been around for decades. The machines scanned my sometimes 12-page-long surveys in picoseconds. Moreover, the machines flag pages of double selections or with smudges so an operator can visually tell the machine to skip, or record “c” for item 29. The paper remains for future inspection. Can scanners be hacked? Yes, but not without tampering because there is no need to connect them to the internet – just a computer to tally the count. As long as machines are inspected and sealed against tampering – it will count ballots fast yet auditably.

    1. JCC

      Tamper-proof, non-network connected scanners would be OK if properly designed and with a tech level of a 1970 hand-held calculator. But with those specs, you would still need people to read off the counters and observers from both parties.

      The problem with that type of 8-bit processor technology is that you would be unable to charge millions of dollars per precinct and you would be unable to rig the outcome with fractional voting and hacked network connections… so no company would bother with that.

      As alluded to in Lambert’s post, low-level tech leaves no way to make millions and assure desired outcomes by those who control the network connected and very expensive “modern” systems.

      Once they are connected to any networked system they are extremely vulnerable to attack and modification of the results. This has been proven over and over again over the last 20 years. People generally, and that includes “local election officials”, are pretty ignorant as to how easily computerized networked systems are corrupted and these systems are prime targets, particularly prime targets of domestic fraudsters.

      It’s unfortunate that the average schmo believes that high-tech is always improvement. In many cases, from network connected $5000.00 refrigerators that tell you when you need milk while being turned into a swarm of Distributed Denial of Service bots to easily hacked network-connected voting machines, this is a fallacy.

      (Unbelievably, I recently read that Broward County actually had wireless-capable, network-connected voting systems “securely connected” while voting was taking place!!!! Ask any IT Security Professional and they will tell you there is no such thing as a secure network.)

      The UK/Quebec system is, ultimately, the most honest, least crackable, and cheapest way to go.

  11. Harry

    India doesn’t have paper ballots anymore lambert. It’s electronic but designed and controlled by the election commission of India

  12. DSB

    So why didn’t this post name names? ES&S is owned by McCarthy Group, LLC. Mike McCarthy is not someone I would ever trust, let alone with my vote.

    1. anon in so cal

      “In September 2016, then FBI Director James Comey told the House Judiciary Committee that it would be “very, very difficult” for someone to hack into the US voting machine system because it’s so “clunky and dispersed” and “those things aren’t connected to the internet.” In reality, however, ES&S and Dominion account for more than 80 percent of US election equipment, creating a centralized avenue of attack for corrupt insiders or hackers.”


  13. otl

    I like the statement, variously attributed to Stalin or Boss Tweed, “who votes means nothing, who counts means everything.”

  14. XXYY

    However, I recognize that scanners, being simpler, are easier to debug and to validate.

    I don’t know if there’s a huge difference with respect to hackability between a device that reads a touch screen actuation and counts it vs. a device that reads a rasterized image of a paper ballot and counts it. I further claim that these two devices would actually have substantial commonality from a hardware and software standpoint.

    Obviously the devil would be in the implementation details, but that’s a trivially true statement in any setting and for any application.

    The bottom line is that hand marking and then scanning is no better than a fully electronic system with regard to security. Better to have a fully transparent, manual process for the entire data path, as Lambert has been arguing for some time.

    1. d

      Many seem to over look that since we started having elections, we had some one wanting corrupt the vote. And doing whether with electronic or paper systems. So why not do both? Using one as a validation of the other?

  15. Seamus O'Connell

    Don’t copy the UK’s current paper ballot system. It is not a secret ballot.

    Briefly: A voter’s number in the electoral roll is written on the back of the ballot form issued to them, the process of the count collects the votes for the parties into separate bundles, after the count the papers are picked up and stored by the security services (is or was by Special Branch), and it’s very quick and easy to look up a voter in the electoral roll. So the security services after an election can spend a few minutes back at the office thumbing through the bundle of votes for a party they’re worried about and identify everyone who voted for them. Since they can do it at their leisure in complete secrecy it’s difficult to believe that they would never do it, e.g. in the past to identify Communist voters, more recently nationalists in Northern Ireland, these days hard-line environmentalists. The ostensible reasons for enabling vote-tracing on examination don’t hold water.

    Many years ago I did some work on this. See the papers in this Dropbox folder: a factsheet on ballot secrecy from the UK’s Electoral Commission, a submission to the Electoral Commission from Liberty (similar to the ACLU) outlining the problem, and Liberty’s contribution to a joint report on ballot secrecy with the Electoral Reform Society (a UK organisation which, among other things, campaigns for the Single Transferable Vote to be used in place of the current First Past The Post system). These documents are not easy to find on the web.

    I have not kept up with developments and maybe the arguments have moved on, but the last time I voted the system still appeared to be the same.

    1. Clive

      Complete rubbish. A ballot paper is generic and contains no identification of the voter. If you make a mistake — and you can make as many mistakes as you like — you’re given a new, clean, anonymous ballot paper to complete https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/i-am-a/voter/voting-person-post-or-proxy/voting-person

      If you still think you’re somehow getting a pre-prepared ballot paper with any personally identifiable marker on it, a feat I’m not sure how you would manage to pull off given you’d need thousands of such “personalised” ballot papers at each polling station and, on your arrival, the people running that polling station would need to hand you “your” ballot paper, then simply make four or five mistakes on your ballot paper and get a new one each time. How many individually-idnetified ballot papers do you think they could hold, as contingency, before they had to relent and give your an antonymous, generic one?

      I don’t mind people making stuff up, but please put some effort into doing it and thinking through the nonsense being spouted so as to at least stop me from simply laughing out loud at the attempt to insult my intelligence.

      I know that there’s nothing more annoying and open to ridicule than the Little Englander who can’t see anything of the world beyond the confines of their own county (or, even worse, small town) and thinks the Irish Sea was, like The Wall in game of Thrones, built to keep out the Wildlings on the Island, but his not-too-distant cousin, the Little Irelander, who can’t help but repeat every bizzare, nutsy and incredulous rumour about how awfully evil and depraved the English are, without offering a shred of proof, is scarcely an improvement.

      1. Seamus O'Connell

        Clive –

        I suggest you read the factsheet from the UK Electoral Commission which I linked to in my post.

        The factsheet also records that in 1998 the the Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons, to which I had given evidence, agreed with Liberty’s views. However, the law did not get changed.

        1. Clive

          Original research isn’t proof. And I’m certainly not logging into an individual’s Dropbox store and opening unverified documents from an anonymous person on the internet.

          If Liberty validated your claims, they’d publish it on their website where it would still be even from a while back on the WayBack machine if needed. Similarly, if the U.K. Parliament had accepted it as evidence (let alone substantiated what you purported) it would be on the U.K. Parliament website or in the National Archives as a matter of public record. Or you could point to some report or other that was published by Parliament (or the Electoral Commission) — for such a major breach of public trust, election voting secrecy and the law as you say was “proved” by you to simply disappear without press reporting or parliamentary scrutiny seems of the highest implausibility.

          Even being way more generous than you deserve, and assuming everything you claim is true, by your own admission you’re going back 22 years or more. You need to show that what you’re claiming was normal and routine practice nearly a quarter of a century ago is still relevant today. And the Electoral Commission was only created in 2001 so your dates seem inconsistent too.

          Internet conspiracy theorists are ten a penny. You’re going to have to do a lot better than that before I for one reach for my tin foil hat.

          1. Seamus O'Connell

            I gather that there is no safe way to link from a post to a document, and that I should really provide a website as the source. I shall contact the organisations involved, but I would not be surprised if after all this time they have not put these documents on their websites. But they might be prepared to confirm that the documents are genuine, in which case you could email them. I shall let you know.

            In the meantime, a correction: The Polling Station Clerk does not write the electoral roll number on the back of the ballot form. Ballot forms come in books like cheque books with a serial number printed on the stub and on the form. When the Polling Station Clerk issues a ballot form they tear the next one in the book from its stub, write the voter’s electoral roll number on the stub, and give the form to the voter. The books of stubs are gathered up with the other material after the count, and someone wanting to trace votes would sort the books into order by serial number. To trace a vote they would go from the serial number printed on the ballot form to its stub in the books of stubs, and from the number written on the stub to the voter’s entry in the electoral roll. Apologies for misremembering the process – it’s been a long time since I worked on all this.

            1. Seamus O'Connell

              The Wikipedia article ‘Secret Ballot’ has links to two relevant documents: Note 29 at the bottom of the article links to a factsheet from the UK Electoral Commission; it’s from 2006 and archived in the Wayback Machine. Note 28 links to some letters to the Guardian with anecdotes about vote-tracing in practice. I have also put these documents in the Dropbox folder linked to above.

              The Electoral Commission has told me (see the email in the Dropbox) that they no longer publish the factsheet but that the information in it is still correct, except that the procedure for tracing a vote has changed. Ballot papers no longer come in books with counterfoils on which the polling station clerk writes the voter’s electoral roll number. Instead the clerk now has a printed list of all the ballot form numbers and when they issue a ballot form they write the voter’s electoral roll number against the ballot form number in the list.

              This in fact makes the tracing of voters for a particular candidate rather easier, as it’s no longer necessary to use the sorted books of counterfoils to go from the number on the ballot form to the voter in the electoral roll. Instead you just find the ballot form number in the list and read off the electoral roll number.

              I shall try to add links to further documents to the Wikipedia article, and also expand its very brief account of ballot secrecy in the UK.

      2. Grayce

        Each ballot has a sequence number. The election inspectors record which ballot goes with which voter. So, in the end, the vote is not anonymous. (New York State). It is simply assigned on the spot.

        1. Mark

          I voted in York County, Pennsylvania. I did not see any jamming or other problems…except the fine-point sharpie handed out with the ballot bled through the paper. I hope that did not matter (it would not if ballots were designed so spots where bleed-through could not be scanned); and, to make sure there were no jams or problems at the scanner, someone stood by and watched the sheets being inserted, able to read selections–not anonymous!

  16. Dick Swenson

    I agree with the conclusion in the posting. I apologize if this reply is simply gilding the lily of previous comments. I was a poll worker and a supervisor before Washington State moved to “Vote by Mail.” I enjoyed the experience.

    My preference is for hand counting as the first step. My attitude to the problem of recounting will be hinted at later.

    Few seem to state the problem that is being solved by “digitizing” the counting. Why does this topic not disappear? Why do we NEED internet connectivity, digital counting processes using obviously unsecure cloud storage for election management? What’s the hurry?

    In the US most election results don’t have an effect until much time elapses after the election. We vote in early November and the Prez is not installed until late January, and doesn’t even depend on the popular vote except indirectly. So why are w in such a hurry?

    I have owned and used a personal computer, a Macintosh that still works using Claris software, since 1985. I have been receiving updates to Apple (1985), Microsoft (1989), Google (?), etc. software since I first used any of this stuff. Most of these updates were to correct flaws in the operating system of application software that permitted hacking. A writer named Bruce Schneier has made a good reputation and a good living keeping up on the topic of flawed software. I have followed him for years. No one has (and no one will) ever produce software that cannot be hacked!

    If we simply stopped demanding Instantaneous gratification regarding election results (driven, I believe, by the media who simply seem incapable of waiting for anything) we wouldn’t even worry about elections.

    Here is my recommendation.

    Each election should be simple – voting for a small number of people for well-defined positions in government. There should be no “advisory” or other topics to make voting appear complicated. This can be done in off years.

    Voting locations should be easily available and numerous – all public buildings, schools, post offices, etc. All ballots should be transferred by hand from the voter to someone authorized to receive the ballot and a receipt should be issued acknowledging this transaction (e.g., a purple thumb.)

    Counting should proceed as follows. Ballots will first be counted by person A resulting in a number cast.
    The pile counted by person A should then be cut in half, one half given to a room called room B, the other half given to room C. Each room then tallies the votes and counts the number of ballots. The ballots are then swapped: Room C gives its ballots to room B and vice versa. The counting is repeated.
    The results are then noted. If there is any discrepancy, the ballots are then fed into an electronic reader for counting. The results are then noted.

    Note. This will not prevent dishonesty, but will locate mistakes and dishonesty very early and will facilitate recounting.

    The cost is delay and the salaries of those involved. I’ll bet that this cost is minor compared with all the effort currently being devoted to preventing hacking which cannot in fact be prevented so long as software is involved.

  17. d

    Depends, what did they mean by secured? A VPN was used? If so, then maybe, since that encrypts the data at the sender, and if the receiver used the same key, then they can read the data, otherwise is just jibberish. Now could some one get that code, sure if some one wasn’t protecting it. Its like paper ballots being ‘lost’ on the way to being counted. Or some replaced the ballots with theirs

  18. Tommy S.

    excellent rundown. thank you so much…..even my ‘left’ friends love this stuff when I post in on facebook.

  19. Ken

    There is nothing wrong, not one thing, with the paper, hand marked ballots used in Washington State’s mail-in ballot system. The only polling places are at a very few offices and open for days before “election day.” Electronic machines are used for accessibility for the few who need them. Everyone else marks the oval on the paper ballot. Font size too small?…sit at the kitchen table under good light with your magnifier. Unsure about an issue?…put the ballot aside for a day while you do more research. Make a mistake…X it out and fill in the other spot according to the directions. Privacy concerns?…I don’t hear of any problems. Voter I.D. is handled by the signature on the envelope, and there’s time for the elections office to request clarifications if they spot an issue.

    The electronic tabulators could be hacked. That’s a concern to be considered.

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