The Missouri Senate is considering whether to permanently unplug the state’s touchscreen machines amid concerns that electronic voting machines might be susceptible to hackers.
The proposal, which already passed the House in a 108-31 vote, would require voters to use paper ballots exclusively. Machines could still be used to count votes and to assist disabled voters in marking their ballots. But systems that only recorded votes electronically would be phased out.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Paul Curtman of Washington, said the proposal would help ensure the “highest confidence in the integrity of our election system.”
If enacted, the proposal would not be a sea change for the state. Every county in Missouri already uses at least some paper ballots. About two dozen counties also use electronic voting machines that do not require a paper ballot, but those machines still create a paper trail for auditing vote totals.
Maura Browning, the spokeswoman for Missouri’s Secretary of State, said none of those machines are connected to the internet, and it is standard practice for those machines to require two keys to access.
Concerns over U.S. election integrity intensified in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. The Department of Homeland has said that Russian government hackers attempted to access election information in a number of states, but there was “no evidence” that votes were changed.
Paper ballots, advocates argue, would pre-empt those types of attacks. Virginia abandoned touchscreen voting last year and reverted to paper ballots. Georgia has considered a similar measure.
Even without the threat of hacking, a 2015 study by the Brennan Center at the New York University School of Law found that the vast majority of states were using machines at least a decade old, and that many machines weren’t expected to last much past that. The study noted that Missouri was one of several states that hoped to replace some of its equipment soon, but was unsure of how to pay for it.
During a debate on a House floor, Rep. Pat Conway, Democrat of St. Joseph, expressed concern that the proposal would force local governments to spend money they might not have. Democratic Rep. Doug Beck of St. Louis, who also voted against the proposal, said he had faith in the electronic machines in use in his district.
“There would have to be a widespread conspiracy going on to rig those machines,” he said.
The vote tallies in electronic machines are more accurate and produce a paper record, Beck said.
Legislative researchers estimated that reverting to paper ballots would not cost the state government money, but they said costs to local governments were hard to calculate. The St. Louis County Director of Elections, for example, estimated that printing additional paper ballots before the next presidential election would cost almost a quarter of a million dollars.