A national science association is applying pressure on eight counties in Kansas to replace election equipment lacking a verifiable paper trail with a system requiring individual ballots to be marked by hand or machine before the 2020 elections.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science urged Geary, Grant, Greeley, Hamilton, Harvey, Sumner, Wallace and Wilson counties to abandon their direct recording electronic devices. DREs have voters mark choices via a computer device that records preferences exclusively in an electronic memory. The association's Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues asserted DREs used by the eight counties were a security risk because they didn't provide a paper record of each person's votes.
Michael Fernandez, director of the center in Washington, D.C., said paper ballots marked by hand and tabulated by optical or digital scanners were recognized by security experts and scientists as the gold standard for election security because the method minimized opportunities to compromise results.
"We hope that officials across Kansas continue to consider this critical scientific evidence when taking steps to secure elections and maintain public confidence in our election system," he said.
Katie Koupal, deputy assistant secretary of state in Kansas, said fewer than 10 of the 105 counties in Kansas used election equipment without a verifiable paper audit trail. Several counties intend to buy new machines prior to next year's elections, she said.
She said all election equipment in Kansas, even those without the verifiable paper trail, were federally approved and certified. Every Kansas county conducts post-election audits as required in state law, she said.
Kathryn McGrath, who represents the Center for Scientific Evidence, said Kansas had made progress moving away from paperless ballot systems, but the job was not finished. The voters of Kansas and other states deserve a verification that reflects the level of risk, she said.
"If anything goes awry, there's nothing to go back to," McGrath said.
The potential problem of relying upon antiquated equipment became evident in 2018 in the Republican Party's gubernatorial primary election. Kris Kobach, who was Kansas' secretary of state, won the GOP nomination over incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer by a razor-thin 345 votes out of more than 300,000 cast. Colyer weighed the possibility of a recount, but conceded a week after the August election.
Simultaneously, the Kansas Legislative Research Department concluded DREs posed a "unique concern because there is no way to verify the choice a voter intended to make" was the same as the choice recorded in the device’s memory. Some states have attempted to alleviate the problem by printing a record of each voter's preferences prior to the person casting the ballot, the report said.
A Kansas law passed in 2018 required any Kansas voting system purchased, leased or rented in the future to provide a paper record of each vote cast. However, the statute didn't mandate upgrading of existing DRE systems.
Fernandez said in a September letter of county officials in Kansas that concern about DREs typically focused on the threat of malicious hacking. He said software was vulnerable to coding mistakes or errors that could lead to inaccurate results, even if the DRE wasn't connected to the internet.
"Based on available evidence, computer scientists, statisticians and security experts have clearly stated that voter‐verifiable paper ballots marked either by hand or machine are the most effective way to secure elections from interference or error," he said.