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How Louisiana ended up as this year’s election security outlier

The moment of truth for voting system reliability remains nearly nine months off, but already Louisiana has earned itself a troublesome and unique footnote in the story of the 2020 presidential election.

It will surely be the only state running totally afoul of the new world of balloting best practices, which says creating and keeping a paper record is the only way to assure every vote is counted accurately (and recounted if need be) and properly reflects the will of the voter.

There won't be a single sheet of paper involved in tabulating the results in Louisiana on Election Day — unlike any of the other 49 states, according to a comprehensive study by Verified Voting, a nonpartisan group that promotes the integrity of elections. All 3,934 polling places will use entirely electronic voting machines that are at least 15 years old, and which do not generate printouts of anything as a fail-safe if something goes wrong.

Louisiana's new distinction as a voting security outsider adds to its longstanding reputation for unique electoral behavior — which extends from its renown for colorful if ethically challenged candidates to its use of a peculiar election timetable that often results in December runoffs for the top posts.

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The state's standout position is all the more notable now, after a string of cyberattacks in the past couple of years against the government in Baton Rouge and local governments crippled the work of several agencies that deal with the public, costing millions of dollars and making the public keenly aware of cyber vulnerabilities.

And obstinance is not the reason the state is sticking with its voting booths Nov. 3, even as the overwhelming majority of the country will have reverted by then to the sort of hand-marked paper ballots that were ubiquitous through the 1990s.

Instead, a multimillion-dollar contract to replace the state's entire inventory of 10,000 machines — with equipment generating a paper trail of each vote — was scrapped in 2018 because, Louisiana's chief procurement officer ruled, the secretary of state's office failed to follow the rules for picking a winning vendor.

A new contract has not been awarded, and bidders are permitted to phase in the equipment over three years. This will leave the state in the unenviable position of sacrificing more and more of the machines it bought in 2005 or earlier, so it can harvest them for spare parts to keep a critical mass of the old equipment in good working order on Election Day.

This suggests the loss of thousands of votes due to the failures of the aging machinery — which uses pushbuttons for making choices next to a display screen of candidate names — probably poses a more immediate threat to a successful Louisiana election than hacking.

Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, the state's chief elections official, has insisted there is no risk of foreign intrusion because the machines are never connected to the internet — and are programmed by state employees at the capital before each election using computers that are not supposed to have been connected to the internet, either.

It's impossible to eliminate the threat of malware entirely, though, because some of the programming laptops may have gone online at some point and because the state's election machine warehouses are not impervious to breaking and entering.

"It's never slipped through the cracks because you have to test every machine with the local election board," Ardoin told the Baton Rouge Advocate. "They would figure out if there's a problem with a machine right away. And second of all we've never had that kind of a problem. It doesn't exist."

In fact, a hack could remain imperceptible in altering this year's results. Donald Trump carried Louisiana's 8 electoral votes by 20 points (almost 400,000 votes) last time, making him the fifth straight Republican winner. And none of the congressional races this year looms as remotely competitive, with five GOP incumbents and one Democratic incumbent looking to cruise to new terms.

Absentee votes are still cast on paper sheets, and early voting is done in the 64 parishes (or counties) on rented machinery that generates a paper trail. Louisiana is one of relatively few states that provide all election hardware to the localities that administer the voting.

In the world of voting, Louisiana's machines are known as DREs, for direct recording electronic voting. They were the wave of the future after 2000, when confusing paper ballot designs and imprecise punch cards fueled the dispute over the razor-thin margin of George W. Bush's decisive win in Florida.

Since 2016, with the help of hundreds of millions in federal grants, DREs have largely disappeared. New Jersey, Tennessee, Alabama and Indiana are the only other places where most, but not all machines in use this fall will be electronic without any paper backup.

"Aging voting equipment, particularly voting machines that had no paper record of votes, were vulnerable to exploitation by a committed adversary," the Senate Intelligence Committee said in the first of its series of bipartisan reports on the Russian interference campaign in the last presidential contest. "Despite the focus on this issue since 2016, some of these vulnerabilities remain."

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