Why touch-screen machines are not made safe by paper trails

Naive proponents of touch-screen voting machines believe that a printed paper trail increases security. Sure, they say, a hacker might alter the invisible electronic tally inside the machine but a hacker has to let the real vote be recorded on the paper trail, or voters will notice. Although these proponents admit that the results announced on Election Night will be fraudulent, they point out the fraud will be detected if anyone counts the votes printed on the paper trail and compares them to the totals the voting machine gave us on Election Day. 

Sensible officials and voters--and hackers--think more clearly. The first problem is that if the hacker gives his or her candidate a victory outside the recount margin--and what hacker wouldn't?--no one is going to look at the paper trail, never mind count the votes on it. 

But it gets worse: The hacker can flip votes in both the computer memory and the printed audit trail--and he or she still won't get caught. Here's why:

Suppose Brown and Gray are running neck-and-neck in the polls. Dishonest Gray supporters decide to hack the touch-screen voting machines so that they to flip 5 percent of Brown’s votes to Gray.  If the true election results would indicate an exact tie, this hack will give Gray 52.5% of the altered election totals—outside the recount margin.

However, to make sure the hack is safe from discovery even if the election is recounted or audited, the election thieves allow the voter-verifiable paper trail to show the hack—that is, any Brown voter whose vote is flipped to Gray will see “Gray” on the paper trail—if the voter looks.

Let’s assume 10,000 voters meant to vote for Brown and 10,000 for Gray. All 10,000 Gray voters and 9,500 of Brown’s voters---97% of all voters--won’t notice anything, because their votes will be recorded correctly.

Of the remaining 500 voters, research on voter behavior has shown that at least 333 (two-thirds, probably more) won’t even look at the paper trail. They will vote for Brown and see a vote for Brown on the monitor, but the vote will counted for Gray inside the computer and printed for Gray on the paper trail. They won’t notice.

Of the 167 voters who do look at the paper trail and notice the error, the vast majority will think it’s their own mistake. A large proportion of them won’t change the vote because they don’t want to take ‘too long’ at the voting station to figure out what they did wrong or how to correct it. The remainder will take the time to change their vote. (The hack will allow a flipped vote to be changed back if the voter tries to do that; it's another way of avoiding voter complaints--and possible discovery.)

Only a handful of voters—maybe five or six at most—are likely to point the issue out to any poll worker, and they will likely be spread over many precincts, because few polling places handle 10,000 voters even on the busiest Election Days.

Of the five or six poll workers who are told about the problem, it’s likely that only one or two will note the issue on the Inspector’s report—the only way the issue would be documented. 

And you can guess the odds that anyone will notice that miniscule evidence—one or two small notes across dozens of precincts--or that such miniscule evidence will lead to a forensic analysis of the voting-machine software and discovery of the crime that substituted a hacker's choice for the will of the no-longer-self-governing people.

The hackers know that they are safe—even IF they allow the voter-verified paper trail to display the hacked vote to every voter whose vote is flipped.  

We can guess what would-be election thieves are going to do with this information. The question is, what are we going to do with it?



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