Missouri could largely reduce the number of electronic voting machines it uses at election polls and instead rely heavily on the traditional paper ballots method. A Senate committee could vote this week on the proposal sponsored by State Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring. He says his measure would create a double layer of protection by having a physical record of each vote.
“This would slowly phase them (machines) out upon life cycle replacement or mechanical failure,” he says. “So we’re not going to require anybody who has electronic devices to arbitrarily replace something that still has a useful lifespan.”
Eigel says his legislation would still allow polling locations to be equipped with devices that could serve disabled voters.
Phillip Michaels of eastern Missouri’s University City has built computer systems for large and small companies. He says St. Louis County has about 1,500 electronic machines and Eigel’s bill would have real savings.
“The machines cost $5,000 apiece, roughly. When the time comes that they need to replace the machines, sometime in the future, they won’t need as many machines,” he says. “Now 1,000 machines at $5,000 apiece, that’s $5 million. That’ll buy 25 years of paper ballots.
Election officials must start setting up machines days in advance and run several testing measures on them before Election Day. Michaels cites the operational costs increasing since 2006 – when electronic voting machines launched in St. Louis County.
“In the four years prior to the introduction of these machines, the average cost for the Election Commission of St. Louis County was $5 million. In the five years after the introduction of these machines, the average cost was $7 million,” Michaels says.
He says the under-discussed side is auditing concerns.
“There is no capability to effectively audit the outcome of elections, largely in the urban areas because the rural areas are already using basically paper ballots. They (rural areas) put these machines out for the disabled and that’s it,” he says.
Cynthia Richards with a non-partisan group called Missourians for Transparent and Secure Elections, says the only way to know the election results produced by software are accurate and not the results desired by a hacker is to have a software-free record of the vote.
“A study commissioned by a former Ohio Secretary of State found that a hacker equipped with a simple palm pilot and a magnet could take complete control of the same electronic voting machine used heavily in St. Louis County,” Richards says.
She cites a computer science professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, Giovanni Vigna, who says a hacker can change thousands of votes however they want in an untraceable way.
“These machines sit in school janitor closets, church basements, certainly not under the same tight security they have at the Board of Elections,” she says. “A hacker knows about the pre and post-election testing. So a hacker getting access to the machines would program a virus to operate only during voting hours, ensuring that it would remain undetected during the pre and post-election testing.”
According to Dave Guest, a St. Louis County poll worker, low battery voltage on the machines can also lose votes. He says that’s why workers must check on machine voltage throughout each election day. He says screen calibration issues also raise reliability concerns.
Mark Rhoads, with the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, opposes the measure and says electronic machines make elections more efficient.
“Rural Missouri is using paper ballots. In our larger jurisdictions, a voter is always given the opportunity to take a paper ballot. What we find is because of the efficiencies, the standing in line times, etc., voters prefer the electronic equipment,” he says.
If the legislature passes the bill this year and the measure is signed into law by the governor, the law would not begin until next year.