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Opinion: Missouri Senate will be taking up an important election integrity issue

  

It seems like everybody wants paper ballots these days. There’s not a lot of trust right now that electronic election fraud can be caught. And if the Pentagon can be hacked, what can’t be?

But these realities took years to sink in. In 2005, when the great electronic voting experiment began, there were big business interests ready with big contracts for the election authorities. The deals were sweet, and the purchases of the new electronic voting machines were financed largely with money from the federal government. What was not to like?  

But in St Louis County, on the eve of the purchase of thousands of these touchscreen Direct Record Electronic (DREs) machines, nearly 100 concerned citizens crowded into the public comment meeting — all but a handful decrying the use of technology which put software between them and their vote and between their vote and the counting of it. After the allotted time for public comment, the chairman of the Board of Elections closed the meeting, closed the doors, and immediately signed the contract with ES&S — beginning nearly 15 years of contracts for maintenance, programming, storage, etc.

But what was the rest of the story? Some people-to-people connections had been made based on their common passion for truth and fairness. Party labels weren’t important. Making sure that Missouri adhered to the principles of impartiality, anonymity of the vote, and open transparency throughout the voting and counting process was all that mattered. They formed Missouri’s Coalition for Transparent and Secure Elections (MCTSE); their goal was to see the hand-marked paper ballot become the official ballot for all of Missouri. They became known as the “paper ballot” people. 

But recently, after a decade together, they have been rebranding themselves as the “HAND-MARKED paper ballot” people.

Why? Because the new electronic voting “flavor of the decade” still puts computers between the voter and their vote. It does use paper ballots, but machine-marked ones.

Machines called paper ballot marking devices (BMDs) record the voter’s choices as they interface with a touchscreen (or a Game Boy style controller). The machine prints out a paper ballot which the voter then puts into the scanner/tabulator. Three states have already gone to using these for all of their voters: Georgia, South Carolina, and Arkansas. VerifiedVoting.org is concerned with this growing nationwide trend which compromises the auditability of elections. As Princeton’s Andrew Appel said in his 2020 paper, “… no audit can ensure that the votes on paper are the ones expressed by the voter on a touchscreen: Elections conducted on current BMDs cannot be confirmed by audits.”

A University of Michigan study found that 40 percent of voters don’t check their ballots at all when they come out of a BMD machine. And 93 percent of errors aren’t caught. There are ways to reduce this number, but the mother with toddlers in tow might miss a mistake that was made by calibration or malware error, and a construction worker on his lunch break might not have time to deal with correcting a mistake they noted. Just a smattering of votes would need to be flipped in a tight race to change the outcome of an election.  

This past week, three hand-marked paper ballot bills advanced in the Missouri Legislature: HB 842 was voted out of committee, HCS HB 738 was sent to the Senate, and SB 378 was heard in committee with Missouri’s Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft testifying in favor. 

But this week another election bill, SCS SB 282, is likely to reach the Senate floor. Its language would allow paper ballots produced by BMDs to be used by all voters, not just those needing assistance to mark their ballots. Missouri senators must not open the door to possible increased use of BMDs. Hand-marked paper ballots are the only software-free record of a voter’s intention and thus the only reliable record. 

As the Phelps County clerk’s testimony for SB 378 stated, “People want their vote to count. They want their vote to carry the same weight as the next person’s. That is only fair: one person, one vote. With the hand-marked paper ballot, there is one person, possessing one hand, holding one marking instrument, over one paper ballot. … They do not have to worry about a computer program or a distant software developer in another state, or even another country who might interfere with their expression at the polls. Their hand-marked paper ballot is their voice, it is the gold standard of voting.”

It is incumbent on Missouri legislators to be sure that the legislation they vote for will make the hand-marked paper ballot the official Missouri ballot so that Missourians will never again need to worry that there may be software between them and their vote.