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Analysis

The Voting Technology We Really Need? Paper.

Software-independent backup systems are more important than ever.

May 10, 2017

Cross-posted from The Atlantic.

In Janu­ary, Amer­ica’s main intel­li­gence agen­cies issued a report conclud­ing that Russia interfered in the 2016 elec­tion, using a combin­a­tion of cyber-intru­sion, espi­on­age, and propa­ganda. In addi­tion to the details provided in this account, media outlets have since repor­ted that several elec­tion data­bases were hacked before and after the elec­tion.  While the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity found no evid­ence any of these efforts manip­u­lated vote tallies, the assaults have left many Amer­ic­ans asking: Just how safe are voting machines from cyber­at­tack?

The answer is not reas­sur­ing.

For more than a decade, inde­pend­ent secur­ity experts have  repeatedlydemon­strated that many elec­tronic voting machines are danger­ously insec­ure and vulner­able to attack and manip­u­la­tion by bad actors.

As it happens, a huge percent­age of Amer­ica’s voting machines must be replaced before the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, if for no other reason than they have reached the end of their lifespans. A study I co-authored last year with a colleague at the Bren­nan Center showed that 43 states were using voting machines that were at least a decade old, peril­ously close to the end of the projec­ted lifespans for most of these systems. Not surpris­ingly, elec­tion offi­cials in 31 states told us they hoped to replace their equip­ment within the next five years.

Secur­ity experts and voting-machine vendors are already explor­ing what’s needed to make the next gener­a­tion of machines more secure. Among the wide vari­ety of solu­tions being explored or proposed are use of encryp­tionblock­chain, and open source soft­ware.

While each of these tech­no­lo­gies can offer a path to more secure voting, the most import­ant tech­no­logy for enhan­cing secur­ity has been around for millen­nia: paper. Specific­ally, every new voting machine in the United States should have a paper record that the voter reviews, and that can be used later to check the elec­tronic totals that are  repor­ted. This could be a paper ballot the voter fills out before it is scanned by a machine, or a record created by the machine on which the voter makes her selec­tion­s—so long as she can review that record and make changes before cast­ing her vote.

The good news is that most states use systems with so called “voter veri­fi­able paper records.”  Yet, 14 states—includ­ing some juris­dic­tions in Geor­gia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Texas—still use paper­less elec­tronic voting machines. These systems should be replaced as soon as possible.

That’s the first step to more secure systems, but not the last. Paper records should be sampled in an audit­ing process to ensure that elec­tronic machines are record­ing votes accur­ately. As Mark Linde­man and Philip Stark of the Univer­sity of Cali­for­nia at Berke­ley have shown, we can gener­ally look at a very small sample of paper ballots to confirm elec­tion outcomes have been accur­ately repor­ted by voting machine soft­ware. Unfor­tu­nately, most juris­dic­tions are not conduct­ing these kinds of audits.

Making our voting systems more secure does­n’t have to cost a lot of money. These two low-tech solu­tions would provide Amer­ic­ans with some­thing secur­ity experts have been urging for years: “soft­ware inde­pend­ent” voting systems, or systems where an “undetec­ted change or error in its soft­ware cannot cause an undetect­able change or error in an elec­tion outcome.”

In light of the recent reports of foreign inter­fer­ence in our elec­tions, it is the least we can do.

(Photo: Think­stock)