Massive voting machine failures in a Pennsylvania county in November are giving election security advocates fresh ammunition to call for nationwide paper ballots.
The problems, which may have been caused by a software glitch, resulted in some Northampton County residents who tried to vote straight-ticket Democrat initially registering as straight-ticket Republican. It also incorrectly showed a GOP judicial candidate winning by a nearly statistically impossible margin, the New York Times reported last week in a story headlined: "A Pennsylvania County's Election Day Nightmare Underscores Voting Machine Concerns."
In this case, voters got lucky. The county had paper backups for all the votes the machine counted incorrectly. They showed the Democratic judicial candidate Abe Kassis -- whom the computer tally said got just 164 votes out of 55,000 ballots -- actually narrowly won the race.
But about 16 million Americans spread across eight states won't have a paper backup for their votes in 2020. That means a similar software glitch or a malicious hack by Russia or another U.S. adversary could cause mass uncertainty about an election's outcome or even result in the wrong candidate taking office.
Even in Pennsylvania, it could have been different. The machines that malfunctioned in November were purchased just this year in response to a statewide mandate to upgrade to new voting machines with paper records.
Election security hawks have been pushing the importance of paper backups since 2016, when Russia probed election systems across more than a dozen states and penetrated systems in Illinois and Florida, according to the Mueller report. But even in 2016 there's no evidence any votes were counted incorrectly.
That's why the Pennsylvania debacle offers stark new evidence for how badly things could go wrong with no paper backups in place, degrading public faith in elections.
"People were questioning, and even I questioned, that if some of the numbers are wrong, how do we know that there aren't mistakes with anything else?" the Times quoted Matthew Munsey, chairman of the Northampton County Democrats, as saying.
Lee Snover, chairwoman of the county Republicans, was just as worried. "There are concerns for 2020. Nothing went right on Election Day. Everything went wrong. That's a problem," she said.
Officials haven't determined what caused the failures, but a senior intelligence official who focuses on election security said there were "no visible signs of outside meddling by any foreign actors." The miscount shows, however, how voting machine vulnerabilities could be exploited by Russia, China or Iran -- which U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies said last month are all eager to interfere in the 2020 contest.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who sponsored the main Senate bill to deliver more election security money to states in exchange for paper ballots and other fixes, cited the Times story, tweeting: "All you have to do is read this to see why I'm focused on election security & passing my bills for backup paper ballots & systematic audits. As Fiona Hill said, Russia is 'gearing up.' And that's just one possibility."
House Democrats have passed bills to require paper backups for all votes and deliver $600 million for states to upgrade voting machines and add other cybersecurity protections. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked any bills that mandate specific election security fixes. Some House Democrats were quick to seize on the Pennsylvania debacle to push the Senate to act.
The story sparked concern in states that will lack paper records for voters in 2020.