Vote-counting machines fill a metal building north of Downtown, where Ed Wildberger and Steve Greiert gather for a monumental task: to make sure your vote counts.
They begin feeding in ballots, one after the other, for the March 10 presidential preference primary in Missouri. It’s slow, methodical work to insert ballots for five parties — Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, the Constitution Party and the Green Party — into what looks like fax machine. Success spits out in the form of printed tape showing that each candidate receives one vote, exactly how each ballot is marked.
Only 22 more voting machines to test.
“It shows transparency,” said Mary Baack-Garvey, the Buchanan County clerk. “This is open to the public, so anyone is allowed to come in here and witness this. That way you can see that these machines are set up correctly, they’re working correctly, they’re efficient and you’re ready to count the votes on election day.”
Ever since “hanging chad” entered the public lexicon, the security and integrity of election infrastructure has loomed in the back of every voter’s mind. Then came 2016 and Russian attempts to hack voting systems in 21 states, according to the FBI. Three weeks ago, it wasn’t foreign hackers but a hastily deployed app that threw the Iowa Caucus results into chaos.
In a highly decentralized system, local clerks like Garvey find themselves at the forefront of easing public concerns about the 2020 election. Part of that involves public tests, like the one that occurred last Wednesday on every optical-scanning device that Buchanan County uses. Observers from the two major parties were present: Wildberger for the Democrats and Greiert for the Republican Party.
Missouri’s top elections official, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, said voters should have confidence in the security and accuracy of voting systems in all of the state’s polling places. He notes that Russian attempts at interference in other states were just that: attempts that were thwarted.
“When I go to vote in the presidential preference primary, I’m not going to worry about whether or not my vote will count and will be accurately tabulated,” he said. “That’s not because I’m secretary of state. It’s because I work with election authorities across the state.”
Ashcroft acknowledges that there is a perception problem. “I’m concerned because people are reading about places like Los Angeles that are putting in equipment that is not certified,” he said.
In January, executives from the biggest voting technology companies told a congressional committee that elections still are frighteningly easy targets. At a 2017 cybersecurity conference, hackers accessed a paperless voting system in Virginia, just to prove the point. Ashcroft has talked about using federal funds to establish “white hat” hacker groups to test the cybersecurity of election systems in Missouri.
One of Missouri’s biggest advantages isn’t cybersecurity but a reliance on old-fashioned paper ballots. Under state law, all 116 of Missouri’s voting jurisdictions are required to produce a paper trail, and no voting machines are connected to the internet. After a public equipment test, like the kind that occurred Wednesday in St. Joseph, the equipment is locked and sealed until election day.
“If we see something funny, we would know it was tampered with,” Garvey said.
Buchanan County uses optical-scanning equipment that requires voters to color an oval that is detected and counted electronically. Garvey said this technology has the advantage of producing a piece of paper with a voting result while not getting caught in the counting machine, as the old paper-punch ballots were prone to do. On the Friday after the election, the ballots are hand-counted to see if they match with the electronic count.
Garvey can remember only one instance when the vote did not match up with the hand count. “Our judge forget a ballot when they gathered them all up,” she said. “We had the maintenance man go down there and he found the ballot.”
Garvey and her staff are not only trying to ward off hackers or anyone else trying to manipulate results. They’re trying to create a sense of confidence in election results, an essential element to a well-functioning democracy.
After the Iowa Caucuses, a Pew Research survey found that 63% of Americans who closely follow election news expressed confidence in the accuracy of election results, regardless of political party. That confidence starts to drop among those who don’t follow politics and those who prefer to get their news from social media, according to the Pew survey.