Skip to Content

The States with the Riskiest Voting Technology

Some states—including swing states—are more vulnerable to glitches that could tip the election. But the lack of a paper backup means such errors can go undetected.
October 31, 2012

Next Tuesday’s presidential election will likely be extremely close, magnifying the potential impact of vote-counting errors. So it could be problematic that several states rely on computerized voting machines that don’t print out a paper record that can be verified by voters and recounted by election officials if necessary.

Such machines are in use in 17 states, as indicated in red on the map above. Computer scientists and fair-election advocates have warned for years that potential software malfunctions are possible threats to the integrity of elections in counties and states that use these machines.

Vote count: U.S. Representative Gene Taylor, D-Miss, casts a vote on an electronic voting machine at his local precinct in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, in 2010.

Another 13 states, including battleground states such as Nevada, Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina, have at least some polling stations that use voting machines with a precautionary measure: a receipt that can be checked later—a so-called voter-verified paper audit trail. These machines are still vulnerable to software glitches, but voters at least have a chance to spot errors and make sure their vote gets registered and recorded accurately.

Most of this computerized equipment—direct recording electronic voting machines, or DREs—has been introduced since federal legislation was enacted in 2002 that allocated $4 billion toward modernizing the voting process. There are several makes and models, and user interfaces vary, but all rely on computers to register and store votes. This makes them vulnerable to software bugs that could undercount or overcount votes. The DREs that don’t produce paper records are considered the riskiest because a malfunction in such machines could be impossible to detect, much less fix.

These warnings, combined with reports of voting machine problems—1,800 were reported to election hotlines in 2008, and 300 during the 2010 midterm elections, according to a report by authors from the Verified Voting Foundation, Rutgers Law School, and Common Cause—have led many states to avoid or replace e-voting machines. Instead they employ paper ballots that can be read by optical scanners. Computer scientists who have studied election technology say this method is safer than DREs.

In contested states like Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—which depend heavily on paperless DREs—a glitch involving just a small number of votes could change the election’s outcome. Florida, another state whose polls show a thin margin between President Obama and Mitt Romney, has paperless DRE machines available for disabled voters, because the technology is considered a way to improve voting accessibility. 

This story was updated on November 1, 2012, to correct the status of Texas, which has some DRE machines that do not produce a paper record.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other
conceptual illustration of a heart with an arrow going in on one side and a cursor coming out on the other

Forget dating apps: Here’s how the net’s newest matchmakers help you find love

Fed up with apps, people looking for romance are finding inspiration on Twitter, TikTok—and even email newsletters.

computation concept
computation concept

How AI is reinventing what computers are

Three key ways artificial intelligence is changing what it means to compute.

still from Embodied Intelligence video
still from Embodied Intelligence video

These weird virtual creatures evolve their bodies to solve problems

They show how intelligence and body plans are closely linked—and could unlock AI for robots.

We reviewed three at-home covid tests. The results were mixed.

Over-the-counter coronavirus tests are finally available in the US. Some are more accurate and easier to use than others.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.