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U.S. election commission adopts nationwide paper ballot guidelines

The new regulations also require election equipment companies to submit to basic cybersecurity testing.
A woman votes on the only machine working shortly after polls opened in Georgia's Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5, 2021, in Acworth.Branden Camp / AP file

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission voted Wednesday to adopt sweeping new guidelines for the first time in 16 years, effectively solidifying the nationwide move to paper ballots.

“That was a long time coming,” Ben Hovland, the EAC’s chair, said on a phone call. “It’s a major step forward.”

The field of voting equipment standards in the U.S. is labyrinthine. The EAC, run by a rotating board of four commissioners — two from each major political party — moves slowly and at times has been hampered by partisan infighting. It can only suggest recommendations to states, which ultimately decide what type of equipment to use.

But states in turn can only select from a limited market of equipment vendors, most of which closely hew to federal guidelines. In an emailed statement, eight of the country’s largest election equipment companies praised the new guidelines as a “significant achievement.”

The new regulations also require election equipment companies to submit to basic cybersecurity testing, which the industry has slowly adopted after researchers at the Def Con hacker conference began finding and publishing vulnerabilities in voting equipment each year.

The EAC’s changes, called the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines 2.0, are the first major changes since the ones introduced in the wake of the Help America Vote Act of 2002. That act, passed in response to the disastrous equipment failures in Florida during the 2000 election, funded a massive nationwide overhaul of voting equipment.

That legislation prompted much of the country to switch to paperless, fully computerized voting machines, which in recent years have come under fire for not having a way to manually double-check their results in case of errors or potential hacks. While most states have since largely returned to paper-backed systems, about 8.8 percent of Americans still live in jurisdictions without access to paper ballots, according to a tally from the elections nonprofit Verified Voting.