Colorado SoS to Ban QR Codes for Ballots

[Image via techcrunch]

Colorado’s Secretary of State has disallowed the use of QR codes and other printed barcodes for elections in the state, saying they pose a threat to election security and verifiability of ballots. Here’s an excerpt from the state’s release:

Today, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold announced that Colorado will stop using ballots with QR codes. The removal of QR codes will increase the security of vote tabulation and ensure voters can accurately verify that their ballots are correctly marked. With foreign countries actively trying to exploit voting vulnerabilities, this is a first-in-the nation added security measure.

“I am proud that Colorado continues to lead the nation in election cybersecurity,” said … Griswold. “Voters should have the utmost confidence that their vote will count. Removing QR codes from ballots will enable voters to see for themselves that their ballots are correct and helps guard against cyber meddling…”

Currently, when a Coloradan votes at a polling location, they may use a ballot marking device that prints a paper ballot that displays both the voter’s choices and a QR code embedded with the voter’s choices. Although voters can see their vote choices, they cannot verify that the QR code is correct. These ballots are tabulated by machines that decode the votes contained in the QR code. QR codes could be among the next target of an attack and are potentially subject to manipulation. Colorado will be the first state to require ballots from ballot marking devices to be tabulated using only human-verifiable information and not QR codes.

CNN.com has more on the decision and the response from the state’s vendor:

“A voter can verify the ovals, the candidates they chose, but how it gets tabulated is actually through an encrypted QR code,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold told CNN. “Is it really a voter verified paper trail if a voter cannot verify the encrypted QR code?”

To that end, from 2021, Colorado will no longer certify machines that count votes by QR or barcode. Under a pending deal with Dominion, the vendor that currently supplies Colorado’s voting equipment, a newly engineered software upgrade will instead print out ballots with choices picked marked with darkened ovals, identical to how a hand-marked ballot would look. Dominion’s scanners already are designed to record hand-marked ballots, “so no change is necessary,” spokeswoman Kay Stimson said.

The state is quick to point out that while security is the concern, auditability is the primary goal:

The argument for paper ballots isn’t that they create a system that’s unhackable — that’s a term security experts take pains to avoid — it’s that using them to double-check a count is the best way to ensure confidence that it’s accurate.

Some experts say a QR ban isn’t necessary, however – again, citing audits as a reason:

Not all election security experts agree that QR codes on ballots are such a problem. An ideal voting scenario includes both a quick automated tally as well as a subsequent statistically significant audit of the paper ballots. The real concern isn’t using QR codes for the first part, because it’s still going to be converted to code for a computer to tabulate. Instead, it’s whether the vote will then be audited — something only a handful of states do.

“Obviously the voter will probably know either way that their vote will be interpreted by a computer,” said voting security researcher Matt Bernhard.

“So long as the human-readable part of the paper ballot can be reviewed by each voter for mistakes and a post-election audit is conducted to verify the outcome based on the paper ballots, whether or not there’s a barcode does not matter,” he said.

Either way, Colorado’s action is likely to spur other states to consider similar policies – just as the Centennial State’s embrace of audits has driven adoption elsewhere:

Still, Colorado’s change will likely influence other states, said Larry Norden, Director of the Brennan Center’s Election Reform Program…

“Colorado has put more effort into election security and being at the forefront than any other state. Rhode Island adopted risk-limiting audits and a bunch of states are piloting them because Colorado did this,” Norden told CNN.

“The fact that Colorado pushed a vendor to adopt a ballot-marking process without a QR code, I wouldn’t be surprised if other states start to follow,’ he said.

This last point is significant. Whether or not eliminating QR codes is necessary, the fact that Colorado has taken this step – and more importantly convinced its vendor to follow suit – will spur conversations and potential adoptions in other states. Where that happens, and how quickly, remains to be seen.

Stay tuned …

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