Paperless voting machines are a democratic debacle waiting to happen

Sam Groves

Turnout in the 2018 midterm elections was extraordinary. In Texas, 8.3 million people voted in the Senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke, or 53 percent of registered voters — the highest turnout for a midterm in recent history. In Travis County, 61.4 percent of registered voters cast ballots, the highest proportion for a midterm in at least two decades.

But the democratic process in Texas did have rough spots. Across the state, there were reports of errors and glitches involving paperless voting machines. Voters complained that they would select the “straight-ticket” option for their party, and later found that their votes were changed to the opposite party. The company that makes the machines blamed these instances on user error.

However, whether the machines or the voters are at fault, paperless voting machines are a democratic debacle waiting to happen. That’s why most states don’t use them — and why Texas should stop using them.

Travis County officials recently made a laudable effort to fix this problem. In August, county commissioners approved a new system in which voters input their selections on an electronic machine and then print out a paper ballot card that they feed into a scanner. This way, election results can be confirmed by consulting the ballot cards, which cannot experience glitches or be hacked. 

The new system goes into effect in November 2019. The thousands of UT students who vote in Travis County can be rest assured that soon, their votes will be secure.

But many UT students, myself included, vote outside of Travis County, in places where a paper trail system still hasn’t been implemented. Dallas County, for example, uses electronic voting machines that don’t provide any kind of receipt for the voter. A total of 82 counties, including Houston’s Harris County, use the same Hart eSlate voting machines that caused difficulties for voters in this year’s elections.

One way students who don’t vote in Travis County can make sure their vote is properly counted is by requesting an absentee ballot, which is sent through the mail and therefore automatically comes with a paper trail. But there are unique barriers involved in that process. “I submitted an application for an absentee ballot in the first week of October,” said government and economics senior Grace Enda. “I had to go out and get a stamp to send my application. The fact that I had to buy a stamp highlights that voting was not free and that there are barriers for absentee voters.”

In some cases, complications in the absentee ballot process can even be prohibitive. “My roommate also applied for an absentee ballot from Dallas, but hers never came,” Enda said. “Luckily, she went home during early voting and was able to vote.”

Right now, Texas uses a combination of paper ballots and electronic machines that provide no paper trail, which is to say that in the latter case, results are recorded electronically and never physically manifested on paper. This makes the Texas voting system uniquely insecure. There’s no way for voters to confirm that an electronic-only system has properly recorded their selections and no way for election officials to verify election results in the event that the system is hacked or experiences a large-scale error.

The clear solution is for the Texas legislature to implement a system similar to the one adopted by Travis County at the statewide level. The high turnout in this year’s election was certainly commendable, and hopefully it’s a sign that Texans will be more engaged in the democratic process for years to come. To ensure that all that engagement ultimately means something, we need a paper-based voting system to be implemented throughout the state.

Groves is a philosophy senior from Dallas.