US election infrastructure is antiquated and vulnerable. Can we fix it before the 2020 presidential election?
The polling place in the gym at Buzz Aldrin Elementary School in northern Virginia was humming like a well-oiled machine on Super Tuesday morning, March 3. Poll workers were efficiently checking in voters, briskly directing them to cardboard cubicles where citizens filled out paper ballots tallied by electronic vote scanners.
I handed my drivers’ license to a poll worker who placed it in a holder while pulling up the county database on a tablet device to confirm my eligibility to vote in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
“State your name and address,” she instructed. I was handed a ballot, directed to a tabletop voting “booth”, filled in the circle next to my choice, placed my ballot in the scanner that verified my vote had been duly recorded. Another poll worker handed me a be-flagged “I Voted” sticker and I was on my way.
Exercising the franchise took all of ten minutes. Nothing to it.
That is, if you live in the genteel suburbs of Washington, DC. Elsewhere, casting a vote can be an ordeal. Accurate votes counts are becoming more problematic. In many areas, touchscreen voting machines based on electronic pen technologies like “ballot marking devices” remain vulnerable. Recent legislation ostensibly designed to secure the 2020 presidential elections lack safeguards such as encryption, election security experts note.
There were reports on Super Tuesday of long lines in Los Angeles and other large metropolitan areas along with complaints about the difficulty in casting a vote in hotly contested national races—especially in poor urban neighborhoods. (Days after the Super Tuesday vote, California mail-in ballots were still being counted.)
The upcoming presidential election promises to be among the most contentious in recent memory. Part of the reason is growing distrust over the integrity of American elections, fueled by foreign interference, disinformation campaigns, partisan gerrymandering and an antiquated mish-mash of election infrastructure.
While unsecured voting machines are the most visible manifestation of the threat to election integrity, security experts also emphasize that election infrastructure—the guts and sinew of free elections—is especially vulnerable. The reasons range from a lack of technical standards to an inadequate equipment certification process.
Indeed, technology pervades American elections. In the aftermath of the debacle that was the Iowa caucuses, where faulty, untested apps prolonged the count for days, voter unease about the security of voting machines and the lack of paper trails is growing. My efficiently run polling place in northern Virginia turns out to be the exception as aging election infrastructure fails to keep pace with online threats.
As the Iowa caucuses demonstrated, new election technologies often fail at critical moments unless thoroughly tested. User training on hastily developed apps also needs to be stepped up.
Meanwhile, unsecured online voting systems remain an easy target for hackers.
All this undermines confidence in elections, and with it, faith in our democracy.
How can new technologies—and decidedly low-tech solutions– help restore faith in the integrity of our elections? According to election security experts, the U.S. should begin by standardizing on a balloting infrastructure that resembles the one used in Virginia and at least 29 other states. That framework replaces obsolete voting machines vulnerable to hacking with paper ballots and optical scanners, says J. Alex Halderman, a computer science professor with University of Michigan’s Center for Computer Security and Society.
Halderman told lawmakers that ensuring election integrity also includes manual audits of a random sample of ballots on Election Day to minimize risks once the votes are counted. “Such audits are a common-sense quality control,” Halderman told a House Appropriations panel. “By manually checking a random sample of the ballots, officials can quickly and affordably provide high assurance that the election outcome is correct.”
Once those practices become standard, election officials must heighten cyber security to prevent vote tampering and hacks of election computer systems.
Halderman and other experts note that the election triad of paper ballots, manual audits and security best practices is widely endorsed by state election officials and the National Academies of Science and Engineering.
As the November general elections approach, some legislators remained worried about continuing interference from Russia, China and Iran. “Our election infrastructure remains outdated, low tech and nowhere near where it needs to be to prevent future intrusions,” warned Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee investigating U.S. election security.
Matt Blaze, a computer science and network security professor at Georgetown University Law School, notes the dichotomy between highly visible U.S. voting systems and opaque but equally important “election management infrastructure.” There are few if any standards for infrastructure technology, most of which was developed and is operated by local governments. The plumbing that supports the machinery that tallies votes remains vulnerable to hostile state actors bent on disrupting elections, thereby casting doubt on the legitimacy of election outcomes, Blaze noted during a recent panel discussion on election integrity.
“These [election infrastructure] systems are much larger and more exposed than the voting systems we tend to focus on,” Blaze said.” So the issues in technology and election integrity are vast.”
Responding to the controversial 2000 presidential election recount in Florida, Congress approved the “Help America Vote Act” mandating that states shift to technologies like electronic touch screens, a technology that morphed into “direct recording electronic” systems. Security experts now advocate replacing these obsolete and vulnerable paperless systems in favor of paper ballots and optical scanners.
The 2002 voting law also provided funding to states to purchase new voting technologies. But vendors showed little understanding when it came to designing equipment that would comply with the law “in a reliable way,” Blaze said. The same was true for design considerations in the certification of election equipment.
“Paper ballots are the simplest solution,” says Halderman of the University of Michigan. While Congress has finally recognized the threat to election integrity, the remedies must come from “all states in the country, the people ultimately responsible for how we vote,” Halderman concludes.
— George Leopold is the former executive editor of EE Times and the author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom (Purdue University Press, Updated, 2018).