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Paper ballots still the best election system

Sometimes, the old ways are still the best ways. We would argue that especially applies to election systems, despite continuing pressure to offer voters the option of casting ballots using smartphones or other devices.

Jackson County is one of two Oregon counties that experimented with a smartphone app that allowed county residents overseas — most of them in the military — to vote in the Nov. 5, 2019, special election. Of 213 Jackson County voters eligible to participate, only 27 did.

One reason could have been that the November ballot had only one item on it — a proposed bond levy to upgrade the county’s emergency communications system. Maybe a full ballot would have enticed more county voters stationed overseas to use the smartphone app. Maybe not.

But the turnout isn’t the primary concern here. Anything that gives voters more options to participate is a good thing, in theory.

In practice, voting systems that use the internet to transmit votes are inherently more vulnerable to hackers seeking to manipulate the outcome. They are also more likely to simply fail to perform as designed.

That’s what happened in the Iowa caucuses, after the state Democratic Party organization contracted with a startup company to develop a smartphone app for reporting results from caucus location. The system didn’t work as advertised, and results weren’t available for days.

The app used by Jackson and Umatilla counties in Oregon and three counties elsewhere employs blockchain technology, which is supposed to render it resistant to tampering. But any electronic system that uses the internet is by definition less secure than one that doesn’t.

The rest of Oregon’s votes are cast the old-fashioned way — on paper ballots snail-mailed to the Elections Department or delivered to one of several drop box locations, and tallied by optical scanners. The ballots themselves provide a paper trail, and the entire election can be recounted if necessary. Even the ballots that came in from the smartphone app last fall were printed out on paper and scanned along with all the other votes.

Even as this county and others make limited forays into high-tech voting, elections officials in other states are looking to Oregon’s vote-by-mail system as a way to make their elections more secure. Only three states — Oregon, Washington and Colorado — conduct all elections by mail.

Election security experts say paper ballots are still the most secure. And Oregon’s elections director notes he has only 38 sites statewide that he needs to make sure are secure: the 36 county elections departments plus two servers, one in Salem and one in Baker City. States with polling places, regardless of the system they use, have hundreds or thousands of separate sites to be secured, as well as needing to securely transport ballots or election results to a central location.

Offering a way for military personnel temporarily posted overseas to vote in local elections is important, but we would caution against any thought of expanding smartphone voting beyond that small group of voters. Hand-held devices are remarkably convenient for many purposes, but vote-by-mail is convenient, too — and keeping our elections as secure as possible is more important than letting people vote with their thumbs.