Want to Secure the Ballot Box? End Electronic Voting

Member Group : Keith Naughton

Do you have masking tape over the built-in camera on your laptop?  I suppose you could install the latest anti-virus software and do a search every day for malicious attempts to hijack your camera.  Or you could put tape over it, just like Mark Zuckerberg.  Not very sophisticated, but cheap, easy and, best of all it works.  Tape over your camera is what statisticians would call a robust solution.

We love technology and it’s certainly great.  But the obsession with technology and with being “advanced,” and at the “cutting edge” can create expensive problems and increase risks for individuals, organizations and even our democracy.  Consider the fascination with electronic voting.

America has a serious election security problem.  Individual hackers have shown that electronic voting machines are laughably easy to break into.  Whether cracking weak passwords, infiltrating via wi-fi networks or thumb drives, our electronic voting systems are wide open to any malevolent individual or group – domestic or foreign.  And, make no mistake, election integrity has been a problem as long as voting has existed in this country.

What are the chances of making these systems completely secure?  How about zero.

These systems are developed and sold by relatively small companies and run by state and local election boards operating on shoestring budgets with staffers that are hardly cybersecurity experts.  Yet these state and local boards can’t even keep up with the grim reaper.  Nearly 2 million dead people were still registered to vote in 2016 (when a death certificate is issued, a copy is supposed to go to the election board for removal from the voting rolls) and a further 24 million voter registrations are “significantly flawed or no longer active,” according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Given the demonstrated weaknesses in security (and competency), the best policy is to keep things as simple and straightforward as possible.  And that means taking elections offline, permanently.

All things considered, paper balloting – whether punch card, optical reader or simple marked ballots – is the least risky method of voting.  A definite physical record is produced.  A properly designed ballot and system reduces potential error to a very low level.  Best of all, paper ballots increase security in two ways, first by increasing the transaction costs for fraud and second, by making mass fraud impossible.

You can still cheat with paper ballots.  In fact, small-scale cheating becomes easier.  You don’t have to break into software systems or have technical knowledge.  Corrupt local election judges can toss out ballots or stuff the boxes.  However, this is a slow, laborious process, must be done in person with every act increasing the risk of getting caught.  Suspicious patterns can emerge, giving clues to prosecutors (And this is the real problem: failing to vigorously prosecute election fraud).

Cyber cheating is very different.  It can be done from a distance and on a very large scale.  A crafty programmer could delete votes at random intervals or in a subtle pattern to hide evidence of tampering.  Without a physical trail, how do you prove fraud?  After all, a paper record generated from the electronic machine could be altered.  Cyber-cheats could hack into state and local election boards or into machines connected via wi-fi to push a few close races in one direction or another.  Re-counts are very expensive – moving a result just outside the very narrow mandatory recount level would make the cost of reviewing results in detail prohibitive.

The original impetus for electronic voting, a belief among Democrats that their confused Florida supporters punched the wrong box in 2000, has resulted in a system may reduce mistakes by voters marginally, but increases the risks for mass vote theft.

In short, the mania for electronic voting replaced a fairly robust system guaranteed to produce a low level of mistakes with a “sophisticated” but fragile system that reduces individual voters error but is open to mass fraud.

It’s time to accept that voting is a human act and thus will always be susceptible to error.  Our democracy is far better off accepting small, systemic error and eliminate the potential for mass fraud.  Our electoral system can survive a few doddering voters checking the wrong box, it cannot sustain outright stealing by stealth actors.