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Experts say electronic voting systems need to generate a voter-verifiable paper audit trail. (U.S. State Dept. Photo)

Chastened by Russian interference and hacking attempts in the 2016 election, academic experts on voting technology say electronic voting machines that don’t leave a paper trail should be phased out as soon as possible.

“Every effort should be made to use human-readable paper ballots in the 2018 federal election,” the experts write in a report issued today by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. “All local, state and federal elections should be conducted using human-readable paper ballots by the 2020 presidential election.”

That’s already the case for Washington, Oregon and Colorado, where mail-only voting has become the norm. (The report notes that “vote-by-mail” is something of a misnomer, since most ballots are still returned by hand. “Ballot delivery by mail” comes closer to the mark.)

Washington’s election officials have implemented the report’s top recommendation for mail-voting systems: giving voters an easy way to check whether their ballot has been sent, and where their returned ballot is in the system. The “MyVote” website links to online ballot trackers as well as voter registration information.

“We do all of those things in Washington state,” Erich Ebel, communications director for the Office of the Secretary of State, told GeekWire.

But in nearly a third of the counties across the U.S., voters submit their ballots on electronic voting machines — and election officials in other parts of the world have gone even further with e-voting. Estonia, for example, has offered a secure online voting system for more than a decade.

One of the top findings from today’s study is that electronic-only voting isn’t secure enough for U.S. elections, particularly in light of the Russian-backed hacking attempts reported in the wake of the 2016 election.

“Insecure internet voting is possible now, but the risks currently associated with internet voting are more significant than the benefits,” the study’s authors wrote. “Secure internet voting will likely not be feasible in the near future.”

Internet voting is more feasible in places such as Estonia because there’s a strong national ID system in place, but the study says that kind of universal ID system isn’t likely to be implemented in the United States.

Even the electronic voting machines currently in use need to provide a voter-verifiable paper audit trail that would serve as the definitive record if questions are raised, the study says. Voting machines that don’t have that capability “should be removed from service as soon as possible,” the authors wrote.

Throughout the report, the authors emphasize that securing and improving election systems should be a high priority, and that officials can’t wait until after November’s midterms to step up their game.

Previously: How state election officials guard against rigging (or hacking) the vote

“This is a critical time for our country,” committee co-chair Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, said in a news release. “As a nation, we need to take collective action to strengthen our voting systems and safeguard our democracy. In addition, the nation’s leaders need to speak candidly and apolitically about threats to election systems. The American people must have confidence that their leaders place the larger interests of democracy above all else.”

The report even passes along a caveat about the paper-based system that Washington state uses.

“With remote voting — voting outside of publicly monitored poll sites — it may not be difficult to compromise voter privacy,” the authors said. “When voting, for example, by mail, fax, or via the internet, individuals can be coerced or paid to vote for particular candidates outside the oversight of election administrators.”

The report says federal authorities, ranging from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense, should sponsor research to “understand the effects of coercion, vote buying, theft, etc., especially among disadvantaged groups, on voting by mail and to devise technologies for reducing this threat.”

The National Academies study, titled “Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy,” was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and prepared by a committee co-chaired by Bollinger and Michael McRobbie, president of Indiana University. Josh Benaloh, senior cryptographer at Microsoft Research, is one of the 12 committee members. 

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