Stop the Presses: How Paper Trails Fail to Secure e-Voting

Daniel Castro September 18, 2007
September 18, 2007
ITIF analyzes arguments made by proponents of paper audit trails and debunks the myth that paper audit trails will secure our elections.

Americans trust computers to run critical applications in fields such as banking, medicine, and aviation, but a growing technophobic movement believes that no computer can be trusted for electronic voting. Members of this movement claim that in order to have secure elections, Americans must revert to paper ballots. Such claims are not only incorrect but attack the very foundation of our digital society, which is based on the knowledge that information can be reasonably secured. Clearly, no system with a human element-including electronic and nonelectronic voting machines-is error-proof, and specific versions of certain voting machines have security weaknesses. Neither of these facts, however, should be taken as a universal indictment of e-voting.

Direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines are electronic machines, similar to ATMs, that let voters view ballots on a screen and make choices using an input device such as buttons or a touchscreen. Some opponents of electronic voting are lobbying for legislation that would require so-called "voter-verified paper audit trails" for all DRE voting machines. The purpose of the paper audit trails would be to provide proof that the DRE voting machines functioned correctly. Unfortunately, as discussed in this report, paper audit trails for DRE voting machines have several shortcomings. They do not provide complete security to voters and they increase costs and risks. Furthermore, requiring voter-verified paper audit trails would prevent the use of innovative voting technology that offers voters more security, transparency, and reliability than can be delivered with paper audit trails alone.

Congress is now considering legislation that would mandate that all DRE voting machines have voter-verified paper audit trails, and many states will vote on similar legislation this year. We believe it is time for the debate on e-voting technology to move beyond a discussion of paper audit trails. To restore voter confidence and promote secure election technology in the United States by ensuring that states can continue to improve their voting systems, we recommend the following:

  • Congress and the states should allow the use of fully electronic ballots, not restrict electronic voting systems to those that create paper ballots.
  • Congress and the states should require that future voting machines have verifiable audit trails, not require machines that create verifiable paper audit trails.
  • Congress should provide funding for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to issue grants for developing secure cryptographic voting protocols and for pilot testing of new voting technology.