ST. ANN — Touch screens are out and paper ballots are in after St. Louis County upgraded its voting equipment ahead of the 2020 elections.
The county election board signed a $6.9 million contract with Hart InterCivic in September to replace its legacy voting equipment. The new system prints paper ballots on demand at polling places, said Eric Fey, the board’s Democratic elections director. The price tag was $3 million lower than competing touch-screen-based systems, he said.
Polling places also will be equipped with assistive devices for use by voters with disabilities.
The new system got its first workout in the special election on Nov. 5.
“The equipment worked almost flawlessly at the 30 polling locations we utilized,” said Rick Stream, the board’s Republican elections director. He said there were minor printer toner issues, but election staff fixed those immediately.
With its old system — and the county’s many municipalities, school districts and taxing districts — St. Louis County had to preprint hundreds of unique ballot styles, estimate how many would be needed at each polling place, then deliver them to the correct polling places. Sometimes this process went wrong, as in April 2016, when delivery mistakes prevented residents in more than 60 precincts from voting. Fey said that printing ballots as voters walk in will eliminate this problem.
Fey said it also will ensure voters always receive the correct ballot.
“We have isolated incidents in every election of election judges issuing the wrong ballot to a voter,” he said, citing an August 2012 primary in which “election judges at one polling place issued so many incorrect ballots that an election for state representative had to be rerun.”
Touch-screen voting was popular in St. Louis County. Stream said about 75% of voters used touch screens rather than preprinted ballots under the old system, which included 1,840 iVotronic touch-screen devices, 514 M-100 precinct scanners, and three M-650 central count scanners. The county purchased the old system from Election Systems & Software in 2005 and 2006 for $10 million.
The M-650 was one of several voting machines found to have security vulnerabilities during the 2018 DefCon security conference’s Voting Village event. Fey told the Post-Dispatch in 2018 that St. Louis County had safeguards in place to mitigate the vulnerabilities.
The old system “was never connected to the internet so it couldn’t be hacked,” Stream said recently, and the same will hold for the new equipment.
Still, some voters mistrusted touch screens, fearing they could be manipulated or hacked. Phillip Michaels, an election transparency activist, applauds St. Louis County’s change to paper ballots. He said the change ensures it will now be possible to properly audit an election because totals “can be checked against the unhackable paper record.”
Touch screens have been popular in urban areas. St. Louis city still uses a combination of optical scan and touch-screen voting equipment purchased in 2005, said Gary Stoff, Republican director of the city’s election board.
Elsewhere around the region, paper ballots predominate, election officials told the Post-Dispatch. Franklin, Jefferson and Warren counties preprint all their ballots, while Lincoln and St. Charles counties use a mix of preprinted and on-demand ballots. Most have ADA-compliant touch-screen machines for disabled voters that will produce a paper ballot.