June 18 (UPI) -- As key midterm elections approach, U.S. authorities are taking measures to make sure the balloting is secure and free of foreign influence.
For years, a number of polling places have gone more high-tech with electronic voting machines. Fears about vulnerabilities in the systems, however, are turning eyes to a strikingly low-tech option -- paper ballots.
The United States largely moved away from paper ballots after the 2004 Help America Vote Act replaced lever and punch-card voting machines with Direct Recording Electronic, or DRE, systems. The reform was a direct result of the notoriously contested 2000 presidential election, which triggered weeks of recounts and multiple complaints about paper ballots in Florida.
With Russia's purported interference in the 2016 vote, though, many election officials now believe the old way of doing things might be more secure.
In May, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report that concluded Russian cyber actors surveilled about 20 state election systems with the intent of undermining confidence in the U.S. voting process two years ago.
The committee said many of the electronic voting systems are now outdated, and recommended all states go back to paper ballots -- or, at least mandate that electronic machines produce a paper hard copy that can be audited.
Why go back to paper?
Nearly two dozen states and the District of Columbia have said they will use only paper ballots in November, according to Verified Voting, and several more are considering the switch.
While DRE voting machines were once viewed as a substantial upgrade over paper that avoids the potential pitfalls of lever and punch-card machines, it's becoming clear the newer machines may have been short-sighted in their design. Advances in computer technology and greater global Internet accessibility have made those devices susceptible to hacking.
"If an electronic voting system is connected to the Internet or has wireless connectivity capability, then it's easy to understand how and why the voting equipment is vulnerable to hacking," Liz Howard, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, told UPI. "Even machines not connected to the Internet are hackable through compromised memory cards used to set up the voting machine before each specific election or remote access software."
Howard said all states using DRE machines should switch back to paper-based systems. Further, she said all states already using paper also ought to implement robust post-election audits.
"One benefit of transition to paper-based voting systems is that the paper trail can be accessed and audited if any concerns -- ranging from hacking, software bugs to programming errors -- are raised," Howard said. "Further, the adoption of periodic routine post-election audits increases public confidence in election outcomes and acts as a deterrent to would-be bad actors."
Since the 2016 election, Virginia is the only state to decertify and replace all of its paperless systems.
States taking action
In March, Congress allocated $380 million in state grants to spend on election reform. Much of it is intended to pay for updating current systems and implementing post-election audits. After President Donald Trump's election, Green Party nominee Jill Stein campaigned for recounts in multiple battleground states, which cost more than $7 million.
This fall, 41 states will use voting systems at least a decade old and officials in 33 of those states said they must replace their machines by 2020, according to a report by the Brennan Center.
"Some voting machines are using outdated software that is no longer supported, which means that vendors may no longer issue security patches for the software, which may result in significant vulnerabilities," Howard said. "We have voting systems in use that are hackable and do not create an auditable paper trail, which is a big concern."
Fourteen states, though, still use electronic machines that don't print a paper receipt as their primary mode of voting. Six of those states -- Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, South Carolina -- use the paperless machines statewide.
Six other states -- Pennsylvania, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas -- use both paper ballots and paperless DRE machines.
Pennsylvania Secretary of State Robert Torres ordered in February that all machines purchased in the future must record the vote on paper. In April, he expanded that order to include all machines regardless of purchase date.
"The current voting equipment in counties works and can be audited," Torres said. "But new voting machines with paper ballots or voter-verifiable paper backup will improve auditability and augment security.
"We want to bring about the system upgrades so Pennsylvania voters are voting on the most secure and auditable equipment as promptly and feasibly as possible."
The Kentucky Board of Elections also moved in February to require election equipment to provide a voter-verified paper trail.
"In a time when bad actors and misinformation campaigns try to undermine confidence in our democratic process, making sure voters can verify their vote is critical to building up and protecting our process," Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes said.
Vote at home
Of the 22 states that use only paper ballot systems, three have also implemented statewide universal vote-by-mail systems.
Colorado, Washington and Oregon have completely adopted the Vote at Home System, along with 27 of Utah's 29 counties, 31 of North Dakota's 53 counties, five California counties and the city of Anchorage, Alaska, the National Vote At Home Institute says.
This system relies on mailing paper ballots to registered voters for all elections, and allowing them to mail back their ballot or drop it at an election site.
"It's not mandatory vote by mail at all," Phil Keisling, founder of the National Vote At Home Institute, told UPI. "It's ballot delivery through the mail to everyone, but then you get to decide how to return your ballots just as you get to decide the time and place of your choosing."
Keisling, Oregon's former secretary of state, oversaw the state's rollout of a 100 percent Vote at Home system for the 2000 election. He argues its reliance on paper ballots makes it just as secure, if not more secure, than electronic systems.
"There is no substitute for having a physical thing in your hand that you know the voter interacted with," Keisling said.
To ensure authenticity, county voting administrators are required to match the signature on the return envelope with the signature on that voter's registration card.
The National Vote At Home Center said Oregon has sent more than 100 million ballots since the 2000 election, but has seen only about a dozen cases of documented fraud.
"No election system is totally invulnerable to any kind of hacking," Keisling emphasized. "But hacking a paper ballot has to be done ballot by ballot.
"[If] you want to steal an election at the ballot level you literally have to commit individual felonies ballot by ballot."