Ballot-marking devices cannot ensure the will of the voters

Andrew W. Appel, Richard A. Demillo, Philip B. Stark

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


The complexity of U.S. elections usually requires computers to count ballots-but computers can be hacked, so election integrity requires a voting system in which paper ballots can be recounted by hand. However, paper ballots provide no assurance unless they accurately record the votes as expressed by the voters. Voters can express their intent by indelibly hand-marking ballots or using computers called ballot-marking devices (BMDs). Voters can make mistakes in expressing their intent in either technology, but only BMDs are also subject to hacking, bugs, and misconfiguration of the software that prints the marked ballots. Most voters do not review BMD-printed ballots, and those who do often fail to notice when the printed vote is not what they expressed on the touchscreen. Furthermore, there is no action a voter can take to demonstrate to election officials that a BMD altered their expressed votes, nor is there a corrective action that election officials can take if notified by voters-there is no way to deter, contain, or correct computer hacking in BMDs. These are the essential security flaws of BMDs. Risk-limiting audits can ensure that the votes recorded on paper ballots are tabulated correctly, but no audit can ensure that the votes on paper are the ones expressed by the voter on a touchscreen: Elections conducted on current BMDs cannot be confirmed by audits. We identify two properties of voting systems, contestability and defensibility, necessary for audits to confirm election outcomes. No available BMD certified by the Election Assistance Commission is contestable or defensible.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)432-450
Number of pages19
JournalElection Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Law


  • ballot-marking device
  • election security
  • paper ballot
  • voting machines


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