NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Amid growing national concerns about election security, Tennessee's three largest counties plan to begin using voting machines that produce a verifiable paper trail in time for the presidential primaries in March 2020, whether the Republican-led state requires it or not.
Tennessee is one of only 14 states without a statutory requirement of a paper record of all ballots — regarded by most election security experts as crucial to ensuring accurate vote-counting.
But election officials in the three Tennessee counties switching to paper-trail machines say they aren't worried about the paperless technology.
Rather, they just want to be sure voters trust the process.
"Now, you've got an issue of voter confidence and public perception, factors which cannot be ignored, at least by election commissions," said Elections Administrator Clifford Rodgers in Knox County, one of the Tennessee local governments looking to switch. He said he's doing so "reluctantly" and predicted problems with printers and scanners.
The others are Shelby County, anchored by Memphis, and Davidson County, encompassed by Nashville. Knox, Shelby and Davidson account for 1.3 million of Tennessee's 4.16 million registered voters.
Tennessee is among a dozen states that continue to rely on at least some paperless voting equipment, though many of those states plan to make the switch for 2020, said Larry Norden of New York University's Brennan Center.
Georgia, for one, is awaiting the governor's signature to change from paperless machines to touchscreen machines that print a paper ballot that is then scanned into another machine — the type of equipment that the three Tennessee counties are considering. Georgia Democrats and cybersecurity experts have said the machines are still hackable and have urged the use of paper ballots that would be filled out by hand.
Only 14 of Tennessee's 95 counties — with 556,400 registered voters combined — used voting equipment with some sort of paper trail in 2018. Half of those counties made the change just last year.
Tennessee doesn't specify what kind of voting equipment local governments must use. And Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a Republican, has opposed federal legislation to mandate the use of machines that leave a paper trail, saying the decision should be up to state legislatures.
Hargett has said the marketplace is moving toward paper-trail producing machines. But he hasn't endorsed them over the electronic-only equipment, saying local governments can pick the systems they want.
"We're not saying that either type of machine is insecure in any way," Hargett said during a legislative meeting last month. "I just think that the marketplace is moving in a different direction."
A variety of experts and government groups are urging at least some paper trail for voting equipment, with some calling for ditching electronic systems altogether. A National Academy of Sciences panel has advised that all federal, state and local elections should be conducted on paper ballots by 2020.
If touchscreens are used, experts say they should be able to create hard copies to assure voters that their votes have been recorded accurately, and to keep paper records for election audits to compare with computer data.
The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations called for a paper trail of voters' ballots in 2007, when only two counties had such requirements. It repeated that advice late last year.
But Democrats and GOP state Sen. Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains have seen their attempts to require a paper ballot trail fail in recent years.
"This is one area where the old Egyptian invention of paper is a better system because it leaves a permanent mark," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart, who is pushing this year's bill.
Over the last year and a half, three counties were comfortable enough with electronic-only systems to stick with them during upgrades, said state Elections Coordinator Mark Goins. He said he expects that all counties will have either changed systems or upgraded by 2021.
The current machines are also nearing the end of their useful life, the local officials said. Goins has said there's about $35 million in federal election-related money remaining for Tennessee, for new machines or otherwise, but counties will still bear significant costs.
Shelby, for example, expects to use $10 million from the county and $2 million in federal money, according to Elections Administrator Linda Phillips.
While switching to paper-trail machines hasn't been an urgent priority for Tennessee election officials, cybersecurity experts have long complained that the nation's antiquated elections infrastructure — especially paperless equipment — is vulnerable to tampering.
Attorney Carol Chumney, who represents a group of voters in the 2018 election, last year sued elections officials for Shelby County and the state to try to force a switch to a handwritten ballot and a voter-verifiable paper trial, among other security changes. A judge declined to order the switch before the November election, but the case is ongoing.
Chumney said the hybrid electronic-paper system will be an improvement, but still worried the machines could be manipulated. She said the paper ballot system is the goal.
"Why can't we get the best?" she said.