Ballot Black Box

Now that we’ve all registered to vote (yes?), it’s time to grapple with the reality that our votes very well may not even be counted accurately. The overarching problem, detailed in The New York Times Magazine today, is that no particular entity or institution has both the resources and incentives to ensure the integrity of national elections. The main problems:

(1) Unless Congress chooses to get involved, states generally manage their own election procedures.

(2) Most voting technology is developed and owned by only three companies, which tend to treat vulnerabilities more like PR problems than threats to democracy. The NYT article cites a “revolving door between vendors and election offices” and the companies’ close political connections, overwhelmingly with Republicans. Unsurprisingly, the companies go to great lengths to protect their proprietary technology and have successfully convinced courts that they shouldn’t have to disclose it to litigants challenging election results.

(3) There isn’t much oversight, over either the vendor reps or particular precinct results. Post-election audits are relatively rare, so it’s very possible for election tampering to occur without anyone even realizing it.

(4) Even voting machines that aren’t connected to the internet are hackable. From the article, some technical details:

With optical-scan machines, voters fill out paper ballots and feed them into a scanner, which stores a digital image of the ballot and records the votes on a removable memory card. The paper ballot, in theory, provides an audit trail that can be used to verify digital tallies. But not all states perform audits, and many that do simply run the paper ballots through a scanner a second time. Fewer than half the states do manual audits, and they typically examine ballots from randomly chosen precincts in a county, instead of a percentage of ballots from all precincts. If the randomly chosen precincts aren’t ones where hacking occurred or where machines failed to accurately record votes, an audit won’t reveal anything — nor will it always catch problems with early-voting, overseas or absentee ballots, all of which are often scanned in county election offices, not in precincts.

Direct-recording electronic machines, or D.R.E.s, present even more auditing problems. Voters use touch screens or other input devices to make selections on digital-only ballots, and votes are stored electronically. Many D.R.E.s have printers that produce what’s known as a voter-verifiable paper audit trail — a scroll of paper, behind a window, that voters can review before casting their ballots. But the paper trail doesn’t provide the same integrity as full-size ballots and optical-scan machines, because a hacker could conceivably rig the machine to print a voter’s selections correctly on the paper while recording something else on the memory card. About 80 percent of voters today cast ballots either on D.R.E.s that produce a paper trail or on scanned paper ballots. But five states still use paperless D.R.E.s exclusively, and an additional 10 states use paperless D.R.E.s in some jurisdictions.

(5) Russian interference in the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump has made election integrity a somewhat partisan issue, since problems call the victor’s governing legitimacy into question. However, while at the United Nations today, Trump accused China of interfering with the upcoming midterm elections. (The Washington Post noted that, although China hacked candidates’ campaigns in 2008 to gather intelligence, the Trump administration hasn’t put forward evidence to support this new claim of interference.)

The administration says it’s working to shore up election security against foreign threats as November 6 approaches, but the outside consensus is that not much has changed since 2016.

Photo credit: James Salvas. Rock the Vote. Some rights reserved.

Categories: News

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