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Colorado the First State to Remove Bar Codes from Ballots

The state is discontinuing the use of QR codes for tabulation that couldn’t be verified by the human eye, taking a cue from election security groups who say hand-countable paper ballots are most secure.

Since learning the scope of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, state and federal officials have been vocal about the need to secure America’s next elections. For many jurisdictions, that might mean less technology rather than more, and resisting pressure from voting-tech vendors to buy expensive solutions where pen and paper is more secure.

This week, Colorado took the lead in being the first state to remove QR (quick response) codes, or bar codes in which the voter’s choices are encoded, from the tabulation process, instead requiring all ballots to be counted using only the marked ovals. According to a news release from Secretary of State Jena Griswold, the use of ballot-marking devices had created a situation in which votes tabulated by QR codes could not be verified by the human eye.

Serena Woods, a spokeswoman for Griswold’s office, explained that while Colorado’s in-person voters would get a printed out summary of their choices, they couldn’t verify that the QR code accurately reflected those. While there had been no specific incidents of QR codes being tampered with, Woods said, a nefarious actor could theoretically program a tabulation machine to misread QR codes, or reprogram ballot-marking devices to print inaccurate codes.

“It’s more of a forward-looking measure … We believe we should be doing everything we can to make sure our elections are safe and secure, and of course increase voter confidence, which we believe this also does,” she said. “There is a possibility that some jurisdictions might want to upgrade their printers as well, in order to implement this, but it shouldn’t take more training, necessarily, than we normally do. It’s just a matter of upgrading the software.”

Woods said Griswold’s office is working with the state’s voting machine vendor, Dominion Voting, to upgrade software to work with current hardware.

Dominion Voting did not return multiple calls and emails seeking comment.

Election security advocates are vocal about the need for an auditable paper trail, but some are wary of seeking too much involvement from technology vendors. Susan Greenhalgh, vice president of programs at the National Election Defense Coalition, pointed out that vendors stay in business by selling new technology, but she has seen a “pendulum swing” back toward paper ballots, based on recommendations from national security agencies as well as budget considerations. She said some states had to change their laws to permit barcoded ballots when old devices that didn’t use barcodes were discontinued, for example, but the new devices weren’t necessarily more secure or cost-effective.

“There has been this pressure. A lot of the vendors like to encourage all voters to go on a ballot-marking device, and those states like Georgia, which previously had all paperless voting machines, made a decision to move to paper. Then the vendors came in and said, ‘OK, you want to move to paper, here’s how you do it: We will give you a device to mark a piece of paper,’” Greenhalgh said. “The vendor’s going to make a lot more money if they make everybody vote on a computerized device rather than a pre-printed ballot and a pen, and just provide assistive technology for anybody who (needs) it.”

In any case, Greenhalgh said it would “absolutely” be a good idea for other states to follow Colorado’s lead.

“I commend Secretary Griswold for her forward thinking, her leadership, being the first state to do this,” she said.

Griswold’s objections to QR codes and ballot-marking devices are not unique. New Mexico State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, formerly the state’s elections director and current vice chair of the board of advisers for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, pointed out that New Mexico never allowed QR codes on its ballots to begin with.

“We’ve never allowed for the possibility of a QR code, or other non-machine-readable marking on a ballot,” he said. “(Election Systems & Software) tried to get that certified in New Mexico, and I was at the hearing, and we wouldn’t allow it.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated with information about New Mexico.

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.