October 19, 2021

Archives for February 2021

Georgia’s election certification avoided an even worse nightmare that’s just waiting to happen next time

Voters in Georgia polling places, 2020, used Ballot-Marking Devices (BMDs), touchscreen computers that print out paper ballots; then voters fed those ballots into Precinct-Count Optical Scan (PCOS) voting machines for tabulation. There were many allegations about hacking of Georgia’s Presidential election. Based on the statewide audit, we can know that the PCOS machines were not cheating (in any way that changed the outcome). But can we know that the touchscreen BMDs were not cheating? And what about next time? There’s a nightmare scenario waiting to happen if Georgia (or other states) continue to use touchscreen BMDs on a large scale.

Dominion ICX ballot-marking device used in Georgia polling places 2020. Voters use the touchscreen to select candidates, then a paper ballot is printed out, which the voter then feeds into the scanner for tabulation and for retention in a ballot box.
Dominion ICP optical-scanner used in Georgia polling places 2020.
25% of Georgia voters in 2020 voted by mail; they marked their optical-scan ballot by hand, so they didn’t need to worry about whether the computer that marked their ballot was hacked–no computer marked their ballot! This is a high-speed central-count scanner that counts mail-in ballots; the screen on the right is not a touch-screen for the voter, it’s a control computer for the election administrators. It’s legitimate to worry about whether the optical scanners are hacked—but the hand audits of the paper ballots (by people, not computers) resolved that question in Georgia 2020.

Part 1: What happened in November 2020

There were many allegations about hacking of Georgia’s voting-machine computers in the November 2020 election—accusations about who owned the company that made the voting machines, accusations about who might have hacked into the computers. An important principle of election integrity is “software independence,” which I’ll paraphrase as saying that we should be able to verify the outcome of the election without having to know who wrote the software in the voting machines.

Indeed, the State of Georgia did a manual audit of all the paper ballots in the November 2020 Presidential election. The audit agreed with the outcome claimed by the optical-scan voting machines. This means,

  • The software in Georgia’s PCOS scanners is now irrelevant to the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election in Georgia, which has been confirmed by the audit.
  • Georgia’s PCOS scanners were not cheating in the 2020 Presidential election (certainly not by enough to change the outcome), which we know because the hand-count audits closely agreed with the PCOS counts.
  • The audit gave election officials the opportunity to notice that several batches of ballots hadn’t even been counted the first time; properly counting those ballots changed the vote totals but not the outcome. I’ll discuss that in a future post.

Suppose the polling-place optical scanners had been hacked (enough to change the outcome). Then this would have been detected in the audit, and (in principle) Georgia would have been able to recover by doing a full recount. That’s what we mean when we say optical-scan voting machines have “strong software independence”—you can obtain a trustworthy result even if you’re not sure about the software in the machine on election day.

If Georgia had still been using the paperless touchscreen DRE voting machines that they used from 2003 to 2019, then there would have been no paper ballots to recount, and no way to disprove the allegations that the election was hacked. That would have been a nightmare scenario. I’ll bet that Secretary of State Raffensperger now appreciates why the Federal Court forced him to stop using those DRE machines (Curling v. Raffensperger, Case 1:17-cv-02989-AT Document 579).

But optical scanners are not the only voting machines in Georgia’s polling places. Every in-person Georgia voter uses two machines: first, voters select candidates on a touch-screen ballot-marking device (BMD) that prints out a ballot paper; then, they feed that ballot paper into a precinct-count optical scanner (PCOS). The software independence of BMDs is much more problematic.

The audit confirmed that the PCOS was not cheating. How do we know that the BMD was not cheating, printing different votes onto the ballot paper than what the voter selected on the touch screen? This is a much more difficult question, and it can’t be answered by any audit or recount of the ballot papers.

You might think, “the voter would notice if the ballot paper differs from what they indicated on the touch screen.” But two different scientific studies have shown that most voters don’t notice. Only about 7% of voters speak up if a touchscreen BMD fraudulently prints a wrong vote. And that’s just one estimate from one study—it might actually be overoptimistic.***

Biden got about 50.125% of the votes in Georgia, and Trump got 49.875%. Suppose, hypothetically, that 50.125% of the voters chose Trump, but (hypothetically) hacked BMDs were changing votes on 0.25% of the ballots, in favor of Biden. Then the result we’d see would be Biden 50.125%, and the recount would confirm that—because that’s what’s printed on the paper.

In this scenario, if 7% (1 out of 15) of voters carefully review their paper ballot, and 0.25% (1 out of 400) of paper ballots had votes for Biden when the voter had really chosen Trump, then we might expect 1 out of 6000 (15×400) voters to complain to the pollworkers. And the pollworkers would supposedly tell those voters, “no problem, don’t put that ballot into the PCOS, we’ll void that for you and you can mark a fresh ballot.” But all those other voters who didn’t carefully check the printout would still be voting for a candidate they didn’t intend to, and the hack would be successful.

You might think (in this hypothetical scenario), “at least some voters caught the BMDs cheating”. But even if a voter catches the machine cheating, so what? Election officials can’t void an entire election, or “correct” the vote totals, based on the say-so of 0.017% (that is, 1/6000) of the voters.

Did the touchscreen BMDs cheat in the Georgia 2020 Presidential Election? We can guess that they did not cheat this time, and here’s a weak basis for that guess: If the BMDs had been shifting enough votes from Trump to Biden to make a difference, then at least 0.017% of voters would have noticed. There were 5 million votes cast, so that’s about 83 833 voters statewide**. If those voters complained, then presumably the local news media would have reported contemporaneous reports of such “BMD vote flipping.” But we didn’t hear any such reports.**** So probably the BMDs weren’t flipping any votes.

That’s a pretty weak basis to assert that the BMDs weren’t cheating. But it could be a lot worse . . .

Part 2: The nightmare scenario just waiting to happen next time.

But what about the next election? Suppose in Georgia’s 2022 Senate election between Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger (whoever that will be), one of those candidates wins with 50.125% of the vote. And suppose 100 voters statewide claim that the BMDs flipped their vote. What should Secretary of State Raffensperger do? He cannot change the election results based on the say-so of 100 voters—those voters might be mistaken (or lying) about what they indicated on the touch screen. He cannot fix it by a recount, because (if the BMDs were really cheating) the paper ballots are fraudulent. He will be in a bind, and there will be no way out. And no way out for the people of Georgia, either.

You might argue, “More than 7% of voters would notice that their paper ballot was incorrectly marked.” Even if that were true (there’s no evidence for it), it just means 2000 or 3000 voters statewide (10 or 20 per county) would have noticed, instead of just 83 833. The problem is the same: even if they notice, there’s no way to correct the election.

The solution is simple.  Voters should mark their optical-scan bubble ballots with a pen.  That way, you know the recount is counting the ballots that the voter actually marked. Touchscreen BMDs (which also have audio interfaces for blind voters) should be reserved for those voters with disabilities who cannot mark a paper ballot by hand.

Georgia should continue using their PCOS (optical scan) voting machines, which will readily count hand-marked optical-scan “bubble” ballots. No major investment in new equipment is needed. This change can easily be implemented before the next election.

And other states and counties that are considering BMDs-for-all-voters—some counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have bought those, New York is considering them—should consider the nightmare scenario, and stick with hand-marked paper ballots.

Everything I’ve described here is consistent with the peer-reviewed scientific paper,  Ballot-Marking Devices Cannot Assure the Will of the Voters, by Andrew W. Appel, Richard A. DeMillo, and Philip B. Stark, in Election Law Journal, vol. 19 no. 3, pp. 432-450, September 2020. [non-paywall version here]

Georgia’s law doesn’t actually say what’s required if the audit detects a problem. The law doesn’t specify that audit results are binding on official results. This year that didn’t matter, because the audit agreed with the official outcome.

*Georgia’s audit was done by examining the ballots with human eyes. Later, at the request of the Trump campaign, Georgia also did a recount using their central-count optical scanners. If those optical scanners had been hacked to cheat consistently with (hypothetically) cheating precinct-count optical scanners, then the machine recount wouldn’t catch the fraud. For that reason, a hand-count is more effective protection than a machine recount. In any case, all three counts (the polling-place count using PCOS, the audit, and the machine recount) showed a Biden victory, although their actual numbers of votes differed.

**Actually, this year a large proportion of Georgians voted by mail, on hand-marked paper ballots, so they didn’t use BMDs at all. Those votes are safe from BMD hacks. But it doesn’t change the “83 833 voters statewide” result of my analysis.

***That statistic (“7% of voters will notice if the BMD prints the wrong candidate on their ballot”) comes from a single study in Michigan. Here’s why it might be overoptimistic, as applied to this voting machine and these voters. First, look at the BMD ballot and how hard it is to read.***** In November, one observer watched a constant stream of voters during about 20 minutes in Cobb County: they voted without a glance at their paper ballots, but then they told the poll workers that they had checked them. It is just too much trouble to try to read and check them.  In the January 2021 Senate runoffs, another observer saw that only 6 of 46 voters even glanced at the paper—which is not the same as checking it carefully.

****We would like to think “there was no local news reporting of BMD-flipped votes” means that “BMDs didn’t flip votes”. But so much of Georgia is quite rural with very little local reporting, and certainly without the experience to know how to even report something like that. And (in other elections) it often happens that there are verified stories of discrepancies months after the election that never made it to any newspaper.

*****I mean, really! not easy to decode the paper printout. In the Senate race, this is what the ballot says:

For United States Senate (Loeffler) -
Special (Vote for One) (NP)
   Vote for Annette Davis Jackson
     (Rep)

Is that a vote for Kelly Loeffler, whose name appears on the first line? Apparently not, I’d guess it’s a vote for Annette Davis Jackson. And what does (NP) mean? And what does (I) mean attached to votes for many other candidates? Certainly (I) does not mean Independent. This ballot is a masterpiece of bad design, and it’s no wonder that real-life voters are discouraged from looking at it very carefully.

Edited 8 February 2021 to correct 83 to 833.