21st Century voting technology: Problems, promises and industry perspectives
The last 20 years have seen unprecedented advances in the realm of computer science and engineering. One area that remains remarkably traditional, however, is voting.
Most people still vote using paper ballots or old-fashioned lever systems. As the GOP primary kicks into high gear, many might rightly wonder why we still use such antiquated forms of technology for voting.
It’s not that there haven’t been attempts to update the technology; Computerized voting machines and Internet voting are two innovative attempts at bringing voting into the 21st Century. There are problems with both, however.
I contacted Dr. Rebecca Mercuri, one of the leading experts on electronic voting, and she explained to me that the reason voting has not been modernized is because, “Internet voting is utterly unsafe. There’s no way to secure the Internet.” She believes there are many concerns such as, "a multitude of ways the Internet can be hacked, including distributed denial of service [DDOS] attacks," that can effectively shut down voting, as well as more direct threats where, "coercive tactics can be used more easily when people vote at home.”
Aside from these blunt forms of interference, I inquired whether there were less obvious issues. She zeroed in on accountability as an area that may not be readily apparent, because one fundamental problem with computerized voting is “you cannot, in a fully computerized system, have both total anonymity and total auditability.” This means that, with current technology, the so-called 'Australian ballot' (or secret ballot) is at odds with the ability to audit the process for reliability and fairness.
While Dr. Mercuri's criticisms had me practically completely convinced that computerized voting is far more harmful than beneficial, my view was tempered when I reached out to Dan Wallach, an associate professor of computer science at Rice University, who is more optimistic about the potential of computer voting. As associate director of A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable and Transparent Elections (ACCURATE), Wallach has examined the issue quite extensively. He assured me that current technology limitations do not necessarily indicate an insurmountable problem, because while, “it's true that the products on the market can't do this ... it's not true that computer science can't solve these problems.” In fact, during our discussion about ways in which voting technologists can troubleshoot potential issues, Wallach expressed, “computer scientists have made many strides in the science of voting. Machines are easier to audit, easier to catch if they're cheating, simpler to design. We have much better technologies. The challenge is getting these technologies commercialized.”
Electronic voting inherently comes with advantages and disadvantages. Among the advantages:
· Electronic systems can talk, providing benefits for the disabled and those who don’t speak English well.
· Larger ballots do not lead to increased costs.
· Your ballot can be tracked from your vote to the final count.
· Multiple voting machines can all keep a copy of all votes to ensure accuracy and security. One crashed machine will not lose all votes.
· Expense. Even at $1000 apiece -- the low end for a voting machine -- this adds up quickly.
· A greater margin of error. Older voters in particular have trouble with electronic voting, while the accessibility of paper ballots transcends race, class and education levels.
· Disambiguating voter intent ranges from difficult to impossible given the absence of physical evidence like 'hanging chads' in Florida during the infamous 2001 Al Gore vs Bush presidential election, the Minnesota 2008 debacle or the recent Russian 140% voter turnout scandal. There is little opportunity to decide what someone 'meant' to do in the event of an error.
Still, some, including Mercuri, are traditionalists when it comes to ballots. “Hand counted paper ballots are the gold standard in many eyes,” she expressed. This doesn’t bar necessarily bar innovation from the field of voting technology, it just changes where such innovation is aimed. When I asked Dr. Mercuri why future technology cannot overcome the pitfalls she outlined, she said, “Think of checks, bonds or bills. There are security mechanisms that make paper more secure. You shouldn’t be able to trace a ballot back to a voter, but you should be able to tell if alterations have been made. None of this is being adopted to paper ballots.” She further suggests publicly counting ballots on video.
While Wallach is more of a technological optimist, he admitted during our interview that there are some fundamental problems with computerized voting. The current machines are “obsolete from the day they were purchased and have become more obsolete since then.” One company controls approximately 75 percent of the market, charging between $3000 and $4000 for a glorified point-of-sale device. Such devices generally retail for between $1000 and $1500. The punchline? Many use Intel 486 processors, technology more at home in the late 1980s than in the 21st Century. Election officials often have precious little in the way of funds to spend on these technologies.
For their part, the companies have little to no incentive to improve technologies. The manufacturers and vendors are “beholden to election officials, not voters,” says Wallach. Election officials are, by and large, “not interested in voter security, and only marginally interested in usability. They want to get a quick count to give to the press so they can go home early.” Wallach admits that “there are a lot of election officials who are better than that, but there are an awful lot who aren’t.” Add to this an unwillingness to admit past mistakes -- namely obsolete, overpriced voting machines -- and the outlook for improved voting mechanisms is not sunny.
While many cryptographers, computer scientists and computer engineers are hard at work on voting machines of the future, there’s little in the way of political will to bring these to market. Unfortunately, there is little sign that in the future we’ll be voting more efficiently than how we currently do.