Last week in Florida’s 13th Congressional district, the victory margin was only 386 votes out of 153,000. There’ll be a mandatory lawyered-up recount, but it won’t include the almost 18,000 votes that seem to have disappeared. The electronic voting machines didn’t include them in their final tallies, and there’s no backup to use for the recount. The district will pick a winner to send to Washington, but it won’t be because they are sure the majority voted for him. Maybe the majority did, and maybe it didn’t. There’s no way to know.
Electronic voting machines represent a grave threat to fair and accurate elections, a threat that every American — Republican, Democrat or independent — should be concerned about. Because they’re computer-based, the deliberate or accidental actions of a few can swing an entire election. The solution: Paper ballots, which can be verified by voters and recounted if necessary.
To understand the security of electronic voting machines, you first have to consider election security in general. The goal of any voting system is to capture the intent of each voter and collect them all into a final tally. In practice, this occurs through a series of transfer steps. When I voted last week, I transferred my intent onto a paper ballot, which was then transferred to a tabulation machine via an optical scan reader; at the end of the night, the individual machine tallies were transferred by election officials to a central facility and combined into a single result I saw on television.
All election problems are errors introduced at one of these steps, whether it’s voter disenfranchisement, confusing ballots, broken machines or ballot stuffing. Even in normal operations, each step can introduce errors. Voting accuracy, therefore, is a matter of 1) minimizing the number of steps, and 2) increasing the reliability of each step.
Much of our election security is based on “security by competing interests.” Every step, with the exception of voters completing their single anonymous ballots, is witnessed by someone from each major party; this ensures that any partisan shenanigans — or even honest mistakes — will be caught by the other observers. This system isn’t perfect, but it’s worked pretty well for a couple hundred years.
Electronic voting is like an iceberg; the real threats are below the waterline where you can’t see them. Paperless electronic voting machines bypass that security process, allowing a small group of people — or even a single hacker — to affect an election. The problem is software — programs that are hidden from view and cannot be verified by a team of Republican and Democrat election judges, programs that can drastically change the final tallies. And because all that’s left at the end of the day are those electronic tallies, there’s no way to verify the results or to perform a recount. Recounts are important.
This isn’t theoretical. In the U.S., there have been hundreds of documented cases of electronic voting machines distorting the vote to the detriment of candidates from both political parties: machines losing votes, machines swapping the votes for candidates, machines registering more votes for a candidate than there were voters, machines not registering votes at all. I would like to believe these are all mistakes and not deliberate fraud, but the truth is that we can’t tell the difference. And these are just the problems we’ve caught; it’s almost certain that many more problems have escaped detection because no one was paying attention.
This is both new and terrifying. For the most part, and throughout most of history, election fraud on a massive scale has been hard; it requires very public actions or a highly corrupt government — or both. But electronic voting is different: a lone hacker can affect an election. He can do his work secretly before the machines are shipped to the polling stations. He can affect an entire area’s voting machines. And he can cover his tracks completely, writing code that deletes itself after the election.
And that assumes well-designed voting machines. The actual machines being sold by companies like Diebold, Sequoia Voting Systems and Election Systems & Software are much worse. The software is badly designed. Machines are “protected” by hotel minibar keys. Vote tallies are stored in easily changeable files. Machines can be infected with viruses. Some voting software runs on Microsoft Windows, with all the bugs and crashes and security vulnerabilities that introduces. The list of inadequate security practices goes on and on.
The voting machine companies counter that such attacks are impossible because the machines are never left unattended (they’re not), the memory cards that hold the votes are carefully controlled (they’re not), and everything is supervised (it isn’t). Yes, they’re lying, but they’re also missing the point.
We shouldn’t — and don’t — have to accept voting machines that might someday be secure only if a long list of operational procedures are followed precisely. We need voting machines that are secure regardless of how they’re programmed, handled and used, and that can be trusted even if they’re sold by a partisan company, or a company with possible ties to Venezuela.
Sounds like an impossible task, but in reality, the solution is surprisingly easy. The trick is to use electronic voting machines as ballot-generating machines. Vote by whatever automatic touch-screen system you want: a machine that keeps no records or tallies of how people voted, but only generates a paper ballot. The voter can check it for accuracy, then process it with an optical-scan machine. The second machine provides the quick initial tally, while the paper ballot provides for recounts when necessary. And absentee and backup ballots can be counted the same way.
You can even do away with the electronic vote-generation machines entirely and hand-mark your ballots like we do in Minnesota. Or run a 100% mail-in election like Oregon does. Again, paper ballots are the key.
Paper? Yes, paper. A stack of paper is harder to tamper with than a number in a computer’s memory. Voters can see their vote on paper, regardless of what goes on inside the computer. And most important, everyone understands paper. We get into hassles over our cellphone bills and credit card mischarges, but when was the last time you had a problem with a $20 bill? We know how to count paper. Banks count it all the time. Both Canada and the U.K. count paper ballots with no problems, as do the Swiss. We can do it, too. In today’s world of computer crashes, worms and hackers, a low-tech solution is the most secure.
Secure voting machines are just one component of a fair and honest election, but they’re an increasingly important part. They’re where a dedicated attacker can most effectively commit election fraud (and we know that changing the results can be worth millions). But we shouldn’t forget other voter suppression tactics: telling people the wrong polling place or election date, taking registered voters off the voting rolls, having too few machines at polling places, or making it onerous for people to register. (Oddly enough, ineligible people voting isn’t a problem in the U.S., despite political rhetoric to the contrary; every study shows their numbers to be so small as to be insignificant. And photo ID requirements actually cause more problems than they solve.)
Voting is as much a perception issue as it is a technological issue. It’s not enough for the result to be mathematically accurate; every citizen must also be confident that it is correct. Around the world, people protest or riot after an election not when their candidate loses, but when they think their candidate lost unfairly. It is vital for a democracy that an election both accurately determine the winner and adequately convince the loser. In the U.S., we’re losing the perception battle.
The current crop of electronic voting machines fail on both counts. The results from Florida’s 13th Congressional district are neither accurate nor convincing. As a democracy, we deserve better. We need to refuse to vote on electronic voting machines without a voter-verifiable paper ballot, and to continue to pressure our legislatures to implement voting technology that works.
This essay originally appeared on Forbes.com.
Avi Rubin wrote a good essay on voting for Forbes as well.