Indiana election upgrade still leaves widespread use paperless voting

Indiana officials are launching a statewide election system upgrade that will add devices to perhaps 2,000 voting electronic machines and allow them to display a paper record to voters.

Those devices are intended for placement before the May 2020 primary on 10% of Indiana’s paperless voting machines, which election officials say are now used in up to 58 of the state’s 92 counties. The State Budget Committee voted Friday to approve releasing $6 million in funding for that project.

Republican Secretary of State Connie Lawson said adding the devices will help improve voter confidence that their ballot is being correctly counted. The new devices will create what is called a voter-verifiable paper trail by allowing voters to double-check how their vote is recorded on the electronic machines. But Democrats fault the state for not acting faster.

The Indiana upgrade will still leave an unknown number of paperless machines and comes as security experts have urged for adoption across the country of paper-based voting systems, saying they are less vulnerable to manipulation and election workers can use those records to audit results.

Indiana will be among only eight states that could still be using some paperless balloting for the 2020 elections, according to a study released last month by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The others are Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, Mississippi, Texas and Tennessee.

Despite Indiana’s continued use of electronic machines after Russian agents targeted U.S. state election systems ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Lawson said Indiana’s voting machines and tabulation devices aren’t connected to the internet and weren’t accessed. Indiana’s votes are cast among more than 5,000 precincts, with counties using a variety of electronic and paper ballot machines.

“It would be virtually impossible for somebody hack into our elections,” Lawson said. “It’s that diversity that really protects us.”

A law approved by the Republican-dominated Legislature doesn’t prohibit the use of paperless voting machines until 2029.

Secretary of state office records show that 53%, or nearly 2.6 million, of Indiana’s registered voters live in counties predominantly using electronic machines. That includes several of the state’s largest counties, such as Lake, Allen, Hamilton, Tippecanoe and LaPorte counties.

State Democratic Chairman John Zody said Lawson and other Republican officials should be moving faster to improve ballot security.

“I believe this is a big step if it gets done in 10 years, but 10 years is a long time, so I think in that period of time I would ask what other threats are we going to be confronted with in election security besides the ones we currently face,” Zody said. “I think we are drawing out a problem that should’ve been addressed a lot sooner.”

Lawson had initially sought up to $75 million for adding the equipment to electronic machines, but scaled that back to $6 million as Gov. Eric Holcomb’s administration wanted to focus state budget increases toward areas such as education funding and the state’s troubled child welfare agency.

“When we told them how much it would be to equip everybody, they said we need you to reduce that number, please tell us what we can do to help without just breaking the bank,” Lawson said.

Lawson’s office is also receiving $4 million toward improving cybersecurity for state and county election computer systems and postelection audits of paper voting records for possible accidental miscounts or intentional interference.

The new devices range in cost from about $1,800 to $4,000 each, so Lawson said some county officials balked at a proposal to require their use by 2024 because of the cost. Counties are typically responsible for buying and maintaining their own election equipment and Lawson said she didn’t anticipate seeking more state money for the upgrades.

“I believe that when the counties see how this works, they’re going to step up and they’re going to buy it,” she said.

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