A change is coming to Colorado’s ballots — after the 2020 election cycle, the state will stop using ballots with QR codes, Secretary of State Jena Griswold announced.
The codes are produced after a person votes on electronic voting machines and the software encrypts their choices into a code that scanning software can read and tabulate. The issue, for Griswold, is voters cannot verify their ballot choices were correctly encrypted to reflect their actual vote. Removing QR codes will increase security of vote counts and ensure voters can verify their ballots, Griswold said, touting the measure as the first in the nation.
“I am proud that Colorado continues to lead the nation in cybersecurity,” she said in a provided statement. “Voters should have the utmost confidence their vote will count. Removing QR codes from ballots will enable voters to see for themselves that their ballots are correct and helps guard against cyber meddling.”
Once the new system is developed, tested and certified, Colorado will be the first state to tabulate ballots only with human-verifiable information, not QR codes, the SOS Office said in a news release.
Once the new system is implemented, all ballots voted here will be tabulated using the marked ovals on the ballot, rather than the encrypted QR code.
Montrose County Clerk and Recorder Tressa Guynes said she and other clerks were not aware of the change before Monday.
“This was quite a surprise to us, as far as the vulnerability of those QR codes, but in the overall view of things, it’s not a surprise that they’re paranoid about it, that it could be (compromised). We’ve used this equipment for an entire election and we cant’ see where it could be infiltrated in anyway,” she said.
“But I know the Secretary of State’s Office does everything that it can to address even the perception of issues like that. I think that’s what this is about.”
The QR code is only generated when people use voting equipment at the county’s voter information service centers, and after they hit the option to “accept ballot.” The code does not appear on mail-in ballots. The code merely enables the machine to read the encrypted voting choices.
“I can vouch for the integrity of Montrose County and our electronic equipment, system and processes and everything. It can’t get infiltrated,” Guynes said.
“It’s only on machine paper ballots. In the case of Montrose County, by far, the majority of people vote the mail-in ballot. It’s a small percent, less than 10 percent, that come in and vote on the machine. That’s the only place it will impact it.”
Griswold in her announcement said QR codes are potentially subject to manipulation and could become a target of ongoing efforts by hostile actors to influence U.S. election results. The U.S. intelligence community concluded Russian operatives acted to influence the 2016 presidential election and experts are worried about “the security and verifiability of paper ballots with QR codes,” per the SOS Office.
“We live in a constantly changing threat environment. Hostile actors will continue their efforts to discover vulnerabilities in the attempt to undermine confidence in our elections. We must continually assess all election systems to identify areas that should be improved. Our adversaries are not standing still, and neither can we,” Griswold said, in her announcement.
There is no evidence that any of Colorado’s voting systems have been targeted or attacked, Griswold said. Colorado conducts risk-limiting audits of randomly selected ballots, during which bipartisan teams compare those results to machine tallies of the same ballots.
Montrose County will at 11 a.m. today hold a public logic and accuracy test of its voting equipment at the clerk’s office, 320 S. First St.
“We literally have people come in and vote on the machines. We print out those ballots. They hand-vote first. Then we compare those numbers to the machine,” Guynes said.
The SOS Office explained in its news release that, in Colorado, the computers and devices that mark and count ballots and votes are completely independent from online systems. The state prohibits voting system components from being directly or indirectly connected to the internet, and imposes multiple layers of security to ensure that threats are not spread to a tabulation system by other means.
Griswold said her decision to move away from QR codes adds to Colorado’s status as the safest state in which to cast a ballot.
Guynes said she is not certain whether removing QR codes will cause any issues, but it will likely come at a cost because doing so would require election equipment to be upgraded.
The new software is to be available to counties for free, Griswold spokeswoman Serena Woods said. The current equipment will work with the new software, although some counties may want to upgrade their printers, she said. “The secretary is prioritizing minimizing those costs to the counties,” Woods added.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer.