The software app crash at the Iowa Democratic caucuses earlier this month has stirred debate about different voting methods and the most effective processes for reporting results.
Although Tippecanoe County does not make use of apps to count votes, County Councilor Lisa Dullum expressed her frustration with technological issues that have affected the county’s polling machines over the past two years.
She referred to videos that circulated on social media following the 2019 municipal election that showed instances when voters would check one name and another would be selected. Dullum also said the current system lacks a publicly available paper trail to verify votes.
“You never have a paper proof that what you’ve put into the machine is actually what’s going to get counted,” Dullum said. “You know how many votes are on each machine, but we don’t have any way of going back and saying ‘Did that machine record the votes correctly?’”
Tippecanoe County Clerk Julie Roush said complaints about mistakes in the candidate-selection process were exaggerated and said the videos circulating portrayed a misleading trend. The machines weren’t incorrectly registering selections, she said, but rather people were struggling with touchscreen technology.
“Out of the last four years, we’ve had four firsthand complaints regarding the touchscreen out of 186,000 votes cast in that time frame,” Roush said. “We have not received a complaint that a voter cast a ballot incorrectly due to a machine malfunction.”
Roush said machines are inspected and replaced if they’re outdated or have delayed touchscreens. She said the board had replaced 43 of the 241 total machines that serve Tippecanoe County and has implemented new training policies to better prepare volunteers.
Roush said older machines were inspected and the majority were deemed fit for use in this year’s elections, and she forecasted machines with paper ballots being rolled out in the “near future.” In July 2019, the Indiana Election Commission approved the implementation of voter-verifiable paper audit trails, which allow for easily accessible paper confirmation.
The entire state is expected to have implemented the new systems by 2029, according to a statement from Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson.
“It is so important that people are confident in our voting system,” Roush said. “And it’s not really about whether or not our system works well — we know that the system works well — it’s really about the perception.”
Dullum said the process for acquiring new machines with outward-facing paper trails should have been expedited ahead of the consequential presidential election.
“We’re going to go through 2020, which is supposed to be one of the biggest election years of all time — record turnout — with old equipment that we know has issues,” Dullum said.
Roush explained an internal process that can be used as necessary for verifying votes and creating a paper trail. Because the current system doesn’t give voters the option to print their own paper confirmation, it has done little to boost confidence, Dullum said.
“There is an audit. There is a paper trail with our machines,” Roush said. “If we wanted to print everybody’s ballot, basically we can print them all out on a tape.”
Roush noted a change in voter preference toward verifiable paper ballots. New voting technology has removed the ability to physically record choices, she said, and instead has respondents send information into a computing cloud, which has created an element of uncertainty in the process.
“There has been a big turn in what (voters) prefer to vote on. Back in 2012, they preferred (direct-record electronic) machines. Today, people prefer paper ballots,” Roush said, “and so we are moving in the direction of acquiring new machines that would have a paper ballot that a voter can touch.”
Eugene Spafford, professor of computer science, has conducted research on the intersection between public policy and computer technology. He said the lack of a publicly accessible paper trail in Tippecanoe County’s ballot collection system is problematic for building voter confidence.
Spafford added that the issue of ensuring the integrity of voters’ selections has been complicated with the advent of the internet and electronic polling devices, which have negatively affected people’s perceptions of security.
“As a field,” he said, “we don’t know how to build computer-based systems that are going to be secure against misuse, attack or just accidental failure.”