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There's a simple explanation for reports of "vote flipping" machines in Pennsylvania

MIAMI - OCTOBER 22:  Voters cast their ballots on the new touch-screen machines at one of 14 polling places open to registered Miami-Dade voters before the November 5, 2002 election October 22, 2002 at County Hall in Miami, Florida.
Voters cast their ballots on touch-screen machines October 22, 2002 at County Hall in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As America’s historic 2016 Election Day winds down, there have been sporadic reports of malfunctioning voting machines. The CBS television affiliate in Pittsburgh, for example, talked to some Donald Trump supporters in (the ironically named) Clinton Township, north of Pittsburgh.

“Every time I would push a candidate for the Republican Party, it would come up for the Democratic candidate,” a voter told CBS. CBS says that election officials recalibrated the machines and believe the problems have been solved.

Unsurprisingly, conspiratorial-minded Trump supporters and even Russian-owned media have seized on these reports as evidence that the election is rigged in Clinton’s favor. But experts on voting systems say there’s a more innocuous explanation. Indeed, reports of “vote flipping” have cropped up repeatedly in elections since the nation started using touchscreen voting systems about 15 years ago.

Experts say vote flipping isn’t a sign of hacking

Nation Goes To The Polls In Contentious Presidential Election Between Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Pennsylvania isn’t the only state to get reports of vote-flipping problems during this election cycle. Last week, NPR did a story on vote-flipping reports in early voting states, including North Carolina, Texas, and Nevada.

And voting expert Larry Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice in New York pointed out something that seems obvious once you think about it: If the voting machines were really hacked, they wouldn’t be stealing votes in such an obvious way.

“If somebody was hacking into a machine they wouldn't do this,” Norden told NPR. What he means is that if malicious software took over a voting machine and wanted to skew the results for Clinton, it could just silently record Trump votes as going to Clinton. There would be no reason to display the wrong vote on the screen and give the users a chance to correct it.

The more likely explanation, Norden says, is that a lot of electronic voting hardware uses old-fashioned touchscreens that get less accurate over time. If you’ve ever used an old-fashioned touchscreen system from the 1990s, you might have noticed that it’s slightly off-center: if you tap in one spot, the screen might register the touch a half-inch to the right or below where you actually touched it.

So when a voter touches a button on the touchscreen, the poorly calibrated touchscreen might register it as a touch on the button next to it.

It’s also possible that a poorly designed user interface confused less technologically sophisticated users. In some cases, voting officials have been able to duplicate and fix problems with voting machines. In other cases, they’ve been unable to reproduce the problem, making it difficult to tell if the machine or the voter was at fault.

Vote-flipping stories are a good argument for paper ballots

So it’s extremely unlikely that the reports of vote flipping in Pennsylvania or elsewhere are evidence of foul play. Still, the persistence of these reports points to a major disadvantage of our increasingly complex voting technology.

Building public confidence in the accuracy of an election is almost as important as the accuracy of the election itself. Electronic voting machines are complex, and that complexity makes malfunctions and public misunderstandings more likely. And voting glitches that sound potentially sinister damage public confidence in elections, even if they ultimately turn out to have a completely benign explanation.

In contrast, voting on paper is extremely simple and transparent. Everyone knows exactly how a paper ballot works. Anyone can observe the election process and verify that no one has tampered with the results. And because paper ballots provide a permanent, hard-to-change record of your vote, they come in handy if recounts are needed.

For this reason, election experts have recommended for about a decade that all voting systems create a voter-verified paper audit trail. This can mean just using paper ballots, or it can mean using a ballot marking machine that lets voters enter their preferences and then prints out a ballot. This latter option is popular among blind voters. They can plug a pair of earphones into the machine and navigate through the ballot without help from another person, preserving their right to a secret ballot.

But some states still have paperless systems they bought in the early 2000s. Back then, Congress provided billions to states to avoid a repeat of the 2000 election fiasco. Paperless touchscreen systems seemed like the future, so many states spent millions on them. Then the federal money dried up, and states were stuck with these systems amid growing concerns about their security and reliability.

State election officials are gradually transitioning to better systems. But we’re probably going to hear sporadic reports of “vote flipping” for at least a few more election cycles.