This post is not about politics.
But it is about the election, and it’s important. Let me state it bluntly: the increasing computerization of our electoral process is putting our democracy at risk. The process as it exists now is broken and we need to bring back a foolproof paper balloting system that everyone can understand and trust.
Look at two of the many story lines of this year’s election. On the one hand, we have a candidate who has repeatedly claimed that the political system and the election is “rigged”. He’s already predicting that if he loses it will be because the other side cheated. Put aside your opinion of the validity of this claim: the fact is that he may, and probably will, seek to delegitimize the likely result of the election, an idea that will undoubtedly resonate with many of his supporters. An election mistrusted by a large portion of an angry electorate does not bode well for good and peaceful governance of our nation after election day.
Now consider the second story line: the very disturbing extent to which many of our government systems have been penetrated by America’s adversaries. Whether it was the Russians, or WikiLeaks, or another intermediary, the fact is that some very important systems that were (or should have been) well-guarded were compromised and hacked. This includes the most protected servers of the NSA. These stories do nothing to instill confidence in America’s systems amongst the general public. Anyone paying attention would conclude that no system is hack-proof to a determined, skilled and well-funded adversary. I agree that this is true, don’t you?
Now look at the way elections are conducted across America. It’s a vast patchwork of locally-managed, often shoestring operations incorporating various degrees of computer and software tools. Some touchscreens here, some Windows 2000 operating systems there, you name it, it’s out there. Security? Maybe. World-class IT security? Don’t bet on it. The men in black at the NSA (who can’t even guarantee the security of their own systems) are not managing the security at the local polling place. The systems out there are vulnerable and we don’t even know how bad it is.
We have been waiting many years for the election process to mature into a secure, stable, uniform process that takes advantage of computerized tools; one that would be secure, easy to use, fast and auditable. And above all, trustworthy.
It has not happened. It has only gotten worse. I have followed this subject for a long time as part of my course in IT Ethics at Immaculata University. The systems continue to age, break down and expose their flaws, while vendors and local electoral officials fight a losing rearguard action to keep up. The systems have proven to be hackable and failure prone over and over. In many cases, the lack of auditable paper trails have resulted in votes being lost again and again. This is not speculation, but reported fact. And now we face the prospect of foreign adversaries with an interest in meddling in our election, coupled with an angry faction ready to believe that the whole process is crooked.
A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times by Zeynep Tufekci, called Bring Back Paper Ballots, makes a strong case against our broken system and urges us to return to a paper balloting system that is impossible to hack, fully capable of being audited and re-verified, baby-simple to use and worthy of our trust. Among the quotes in the piece is this one from Matthew Green, a specialist in cryptology and cybersecurity at Johns Hopkins University (no Luddite he): “There is only one way to protect the voting systems from a nation-state funded cyberattack: Use paper.”
I have been convinced by Tufekci’s argument and I agree that our electoral process is one place where computerization will work not to our benefit but to our detriment. As an IT guy it’s hard for me to admit that, but as a citizen, it’s a no-brainer.
Paper based systems need not be primitive or cumbersome. My county (Chester County, PA) uses an Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) system, often called “fill in the bubble”. It’s simple and scanable, results are computable quickly, it’s hard to tamper with and, best of all, the paper can be saved and recounted if there’s a dispute. I think this should become the electoral standard everywhere.
We cannot allow the results of our next election, and many after that, to be put at risk and tainted by doubt and denial. We must have a process that every citizen can trust and no one can tamper with. Let’s go back to a good paper balloting process.