Taking the Paper Trail

Sen. Ron Wyden pushes for paper ballots in elections

Sen. Ron Wyden wants elections to go back to the future.

Wyden, along with other senators including Sen. Jeff Merkley, introduced legislation to the U.S. Senate that would require state and local governments to use paper ballots to ensure elections are free from foreign interference, like Russians.

Wyden was joined at a press conference in Eugene Thursday, Aug. 30, by local chapters of the NAACP and League of Women’s Voters, to advocate the Protecting American Votes and Elections (PAVE) Act of 2018. 

If passed, the bill would require the use of paper ballots and “risk-limiting” audits for all federal elections, which Wyden says would limit the chances of foreign influence in elections. 

Now, Wyden isn’t pushing for ballots like hanging chads — which caused election controversy in Florida during the 2000 election. 

He and other senators want elections to have a paper ballot which, when an audit is necessary, leaves a verifiable paper trail. 

Wyden said about 40 million Americans currently use “unreliable” voting machines. In addition, 22 states do not offer paper ballots to voters. 

The problem with modern elections, Wyden said, is that voting machine companies think they’re above the law and have found a way to secure their place in elections thanks to active lobbying. 

During the press conference, Wyden targeted Election Systems & Software (ES&S), a company that he described as a leading provider of election services and products. 

In March, the senator questioned ES&S on whether the company’s voting machines were installed with remote-access software. The company didn’t provide an answer.

ES&S sent a letter in April 2018 to Wyden, saying their voting machines had remote access software installed. As a result, the machines could be vulnerable to hacking, which has the power to manipulate election results.  

“That’s as bad for American voters as taking our ballots and transferring them to the streets of Moscow,” Wyden said. 

However, in an email to Eugene Weekly, the company expanded on the answer, saying the remote access software was not installed on voting machines but on computers used for elections administrative purposes, as was common practice for computers in the early 2000s.

ES&S added that it ended the practice in 2007 and its customers do not have the remote access software installed in computers today. 

During the press conference, Wyden also took a hard stance against Russians as well as “hostile foreign states” that he said are able to easily penetrate U.S. democracy. 

 “The Russians are essentially like the burglars, who stalk around the neighborhood,” Wyden said. “Literally going from door to door, looking for opportunities, doors left open, places where they can penetrate our democracy.” 

Twelve Russians have been charged with hacking the 2016 U.S. election. 

Wyden, however, says he doesn’t want his tone to be confused with stirring up a Cold War-like narrative with Russia.

“There’s a difference between Russians trying to undermine democracy and exploit the fact that our country has a president who’s willing to go along with it, and going out and starting a new nuclear arms race,” he tells Eugene Weekly

So far, Wyden has recruited support from senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, and he says he’s going to work on getting more allies in Congress. 

As for securing the funds to distribute paper ballots, he says that Congress appropriated $380 million for election security. This money could provide every registered American voter with paper ballots. 

“Everyone should get a ballot by mail,” Wyden said in reference that the U.S. should have an Oregon-style election. “Now, I don’t think we can get that in this Congress. What we can do is get a paper ballot for every American.”