New Mexico ‘ahead of the game’ on paper ballots

By:  Andrew Oxford

Your bank might want you to give up those paper statements sent in the mail in favor of an app on your smartphone, and your doctor might keep your medical records on a computer instead of in a manila folder. But New Mexico wants to keep your vote on a paper ballot, and a growing number of states are following suit, ditching paperless elections because of concerns about cybersecurity.

Russian hackers, according to election officials, targeted voting systems in 21 states last year, but New Mexico was not among them.

Government officials credit New Mexico’s reliance on paper ballots at least in part with making it less vulnerable to hackers and vote thieves.

The New Mexico Legislature approved a law in 2006 requiring paper ballots for any election held under state law. All 33 counties in the state now use paper ballots. They are counted with electronic scanners, which create a paper trail that must be stored for nearly two years after most elections.

“It makes it difficult to affect the outcome of an election,” Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said Tuesday.

So, as voting equipment around the country ages and worries continue to mount about the security of America’s elections, New Mexico has ended up ahead of the curve.

“New Mexico was ahead of the game on this,” said Wendy Underhill of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But, she said, computers still support many other parts of the voting process, from voter registration to issuing mail ballots and transmitting the results on election night.

Other observers warn that the state should not get complacent just because voters fill out their ballots with a marker instead of by tapping a computer screen. There are still plenty of ways, experts say, to tamper with elections in states that use paper ballots.

“Just because you’re filling in a ballot, don’t be disabused of the notion that technology pervades every other part of the process,” said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Across the country, five states had embraced paperless voting systems. They were Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey and South Carolina. Some counties and cities within other states have gone paperless, too, including in the presidential battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Virginia.

But observers say there is growing appetite for returning to paper ballots, or at least some sort of voting system that provides a paper trail.

Though the “hanging chad” fiasco of the 2000 presidential election spurred interest in electronic voting machines, much of the equipment purchased in the subsequent years is becoming outdated. And concerns about hacking, particularly in last year’s election, have given new urgency to upgrades.

According to the National Association of Secretaries of State, would-be hackers tried to “scan” state computer systems, apparently to search for weaknesses. Secretaries of state have said no voter information was deleted or tampered with and that voting machines were not affected. But the news has made cybersecurity a bigger priority as election officials rethink their equipment.

Virginia officials decided in August to ditch paperless, touch-screen voting machines used in nearly two dozen communities. Every voter in that state will get a paper ballot when they head to the polls in a gubernatorial election this month.

And Georgia is moving away from its totally digital system in favor of paper ballots created with a machine.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, wants state election officials around the country to have more access to information about the threats facing those systems.

Heinrich unveiled legislation Tuesday along with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to ensure the federal government can share certain classified information with state election administrators.

In 2016, he said, national security officials were not always clear with states about threats to election accuracy.

“The Department of Homeland Security just did not have the awareness of who they should be communicating with,” Heinrich told reporters on Tuesday.

By allowing the federal government to extend security clearances to top state election administrators, Heinrich said, national security officials could “be more blunt about what is going on.”

Known as the SAVE Act, the bill would also provide guidelines for better securing election systems and create grants to help states pay for upgrading equipment.

“Many states, including New Mexico, could utilize this federal assistance to enhance our voting system security,” Toulouse Oliver said.

The bill would require audits of the elections involving that upgraded equipment and it would create a program rewarding hackers who partner with election system vendors and find security problems.

The bill is just one of the first among several percolating around Congress amid concerns about foreign interference in the 2016 election.

And by encouraging better auditing as well as more communication about threats to the nation’s voting systems, the bill is a step forward, Hall said.