Election security seems to be very much in the news now. There are many facets to election security. This is a light (albeit somewhat lengthy) overview of some of the issues involved. If we all pay attention and use caution and foresight we do have the ability to hold smooth elections in November and going forward.
For sixteen years or so I’ve been advocating for safe, secure, recountable, auditable elections (thus folks have asked me to create a simple discussion). I’ve been privileged to learn from brilliant colleagues, many experts in relevant fields who are also eminently adept at explaining things to those of us who are far from experts. We have connected with national and international experts, have educated ourselves and kept ourselves aware, have had discussions with elected officials at various levels, and have offered our services and advice free of charge to those who make decisions about voting systems.
The issues have been laid out plainly in such diverse media as The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, the BBC, 60 Minutes, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, and Vox.com. Articles have appeared in local newspapers. Whole books have been written about voting systems, whole courses of study have been taught. (Our nonprofit’s website, VoteAllegheny.org, has many external links listed, as well as general information.) And when push has come to shove, in many cases state or local officials have trusted voting system vendors hawking what – to us and to others – seemed to be and would prove to be shoddy products, being sold by salesmen who somehow had ingratiated themselves with politicians and elections directors.
Does that mean that we shouldn’t trust our systems, that we shouldn’t vote? No! What does it mean?
The short answer is that we have got to get the politics out of conducting elections!
Since we cannot accomplish that right away, here are some items we should be looking for as our leaders discuss the integrity of elections.
Everyone eligible to vote should vote, and anyone not eligible to vote should not vote. There is no need to “purge” the voter rolls at this late date for fear someone will vote who shouldn’t. Most often such “purges” remove voters who should not be removed, and who are then surprised when they show up to vote in the same precinct they have lived and voted in for decades, only to be told their names do not appear. Voters may or may not receive notification about their names being “purged,” and it may or may not be too late to do something about it.
Make certain you are registered to vote, are listed under the appropriate party affiliation, and will be eligible to vote in November. Check your registration frequently in the run-up to the election, as it is stored on computers, and they are fallible.
If you are planning to vote by mail, request your ballot early. Request it now, if you are able. And send it back the same day you receive it, because we cannot rely upon the U.S. Postal Service right now. Mail delivery has been slow and delayed, and when we inundate the carriers with ballots, it will naturally slow things further. Have consideration, and get your ballot in.
If you plan to vote in person, please remember to wear a mask, keep your distance from others, and take your own black pen with which to vote. That brings us to the voting systems themselves.
In all cases, there should be a piece of paper that the voter either fills out or causes to be filled out, then looks over, then submits to a ballot box, or better inserts into a scanner that then captures it to a ballot box (thus reducing one step).
Is your locality still voting on paperless touch-screen electronic machines (Georgia, Texas)? Do something about it, that is not a secure or recountable way to cast a ballot. The way a “recount” is performed on a machine like that is by turning it back on and seeing what numbers it spit out before it was turned off. There is no way to check that there were ten votes cast for Joe Schmo and thirteen votes cast for Chaim Yankel, when there are zero pieces of paper involved in the election and thus there is no backup to count.
We simply cannot trust electronics alone to record our votes. Where we might trust a bank transaction (in which we are clearly identified and have receipts to back up the transaction) or a pizza purchase (again, where we have receipts and are not ordering anonymously), that is one thing. Even voting in an organizational election for your group’s secretary or treasurer or for your preference for church dinner food or where to hold a family reunion may be done online. Voting in a public election with ballot secrecy and a need for verifiability is a whole different matter.
Further, where there are pieces of paper, we should be mandatorily auditing. Think of it like counting $1 bills after a flea market: having two persons count a pile of bills provides more surety that the number is correct. Experts suggest auditing a significant number of precincts of varying size, comparing a hand-count of the ballots to the machine tally. This is very important, and it is even more important if your machine prints out a ballot with the candidates’ names on it as you voted them, but it also produces a bar code or QR code, which is what the scanner is reading rather than the words. (In that case, the voter does not know what has been encoded in that code. Please discourage your elected officials from purchasing this sort of machinery.)
It is very important we audit, to give assurance that the machines likely have counted correctly.
The question I’ve gotten the most through the years concerns voting by smart phone or any other internet connection. “Why not?” you ask, “We buy our pizza online! We bank online!”
Declaring that “it is time for us to vote by internet” does not make it feasible or smart. Look at it this way. Our ballots are generally cast in secrecy (that is the intent). We must prove that we are the individuals who are eligible to cast the ballot, but we don’t want the votes on that ballot to be connected with us in any public way. That would leave us open to all sorts of collusion both before and after casting the ballot. If someone could find out how we will have voted, that person might pay us (or otherwise coerce us) to cast our ballot for a certain candidate. If we can prove after the fact how we did vote, we could similarly sell that vote later.
Moreover, the internet is not secure. No, please stop objecting: the internet is not secure. A vote can be captured and recast differently in at least three places along its path: at the computer or smart phone from which it is sent, over the internet connection through which it travels, and at the computer which is receiving it. Especially if one is in a foreign country, one may be trusting the internet providers operating either officially or corruptly within that country, neither of which is a good platform for casting a ballot.
I mention that foreign country because right now at least half the states in the United States offer some form of internet voting to their military and overseas (“UOCAVA”) voters. Interestingly, these permissive state laws all look similar to each other – created by a lobbying group – and they were sold to legislators as offering instant voting to soldiers in the trenches. (We fought similar bills in Pennsylvania more than once. They would change a few meaningless words, say the bill was different, and try again to get the legislators to pass it.) UOCAVA voters comprise a broader group than just troops in the heat of battle: ambassadors and embassy workers, reporters and correspondents, overseas professors, students, other expats who still hold voting rights. All of those persons from those states which permit it may log into an unsecure computer or smart phone and cast a ballot which they are trusting will arrive as they intend it at the desk of an election worker in their county of residence. Could that be abused by foreign interests? Yes. Do the county elections workers have the ability to check? Mostly the answer is “not really.”
Moreover, if one transmits – especially if one emails – a ballot, it is obvious to the person receiving it how that voter has voted. This removes the secrecy of the ballot. Maybe you don’t care now. But in later years when someone can look up how you voted and hold it against you, you might care.
The basis of secure voting is the voter proving who s/he is, and then casting a ballot which ends up on paper in a ballot box. Thereafter, the chain of custody for that ballot in that ballot box must also be secure, through the tallying (whether by hand or machine) and through the subsequent storage (in my state it must be kept for 22 months), and through mandatory risk-limiting audits which should be in place in all jurisdictions that count their ballots by machine.
This is why we have the ability to appoint poll watchers in most jurisdictions, of various political parties, who make certain that those who are voting at the precinct level are eligible to do so, that no one prevents voters from casting a ballot, and that each ballot is watched through the subsequent transit and tabulation.
That brings us back to mail-in ballots. Are they secure? Again, it depends upon following the chain of custody.
First, are they sent back to the county elections offices by the U.S. Postal Service, which we presume to be secure based on federal laws protecting our postal service? (Recently we must also ask whether the postal service has the ability anymore to deliver election mail securely and swiftly in massive quantities.) Are there secure drop boxes into which a voter may deposit his/her ballot, which are opened to collect the ballots only by official county workers with numerous witnesses of all political parties present? When the ballot gets to the county office, what happens to it? All jurisdictions should be eminently transparent about all of this.
The Postal Service offers an “Election Mail” program, which permits counties to track ballots and inform voters of the progress, through the use of barcodes. Some jurisdictions take advantage of this and others do not. Lobby for use of that tracking.
Do the voters place their carefully marked and reviewed ballots into privacy envelopes which clearly identify the voter as someone who is eligible to vote, and when that outside envelope is checked and approved and opened, is the ballot placed carefully into an appropriately secure separate location, again with multiple witnesses watching as the box is locked until counting?
If ballots are thus opened ahead of elections, are they carefully stored and not yet counted, as illegally publicizing that count information could sway the election?
How are the return-mail envelopes verified? Is it by signature? Is it by other identifying means (such as a barcode)? Are those envelopes kept? Is there a way for a voter to know that his/her ballot has been received by the county, based on that return-mail envelope? Is there a way for the voter to know that his/her ballot has been rejected because of mismatched signatures, and is there a recourse such as providing evidence of, say, a broken hand or other mitigating circumstance?
States which have been doing all-mail-in voting worked very hard up front on doing it properly, some for many years (Oregon for 15 years, Colorado for eight) before launching the system. States which have only just turned to mail-in ballots because of the current pandemic have done so more or less on the fly, without much forethought, and generally without contacting and listening to folks from nonprofits who wish to provide free advice about doing it right, nor even to local elections officials.
Do foreign countries interfere? Probably. Do you read every scathing ad and article in your news feed about candidates and other matters, and then post and repost until it is impossible to tell fact from fiction? The creators of those ads and news items may or may not be in foreign countries, but their goals are to press your buttons and have you further their propaganda. Stop it! Cut them off now.
Do foreign interests pour tons of money into political ads to get us to vote for the candidates that will most serve their interests? Probably. Again, stop listening! I like to watch Jeopardy! every evening, but those endless ads that purport to tell us what the candidates will and will not do if elected are pulling that information out of their elbows. They intend to get you worked up, and they do. Stop listening! If some stranger comes up to you and whispers, “Your mother wears army boots!” do you run around telling everyone that there is an emergency that your mother is wearing army boots? Or do you call your mother and ask about her footwear?
Can the database of voters be hacked, can registrations be changed? Yes. As I understand it, it happened in Israel, and possibly in various U.S. locations. Again, check your registration.
Some folks say, “There is no evidence of hacking.” That may certainly be true. Many is the murderer who got away with murder by leaving no clues behind. What we need from our officials is evidence of security!
Some candidates will say that the very system for voting is corrupt, hoping that those opposed to their candidacy won’t go out and vote. Sometimes there are efforts which tell voters of one party that the election for them is on Wednesday, not Tuesday. We all must stop listening to them.
So What, Then?
So there are problems. But that doesn’t mean that the system is bad, or corrupt. It just means that it could be better.
There are articles and resources available if you would like to learn more. Our nonprofit organization, VoteAllegheny.org, has both information in general and a list of external links that may prove enlightening. VotePA.us also has information available.
So what should we all be doing?
We should be voting!
Verify your registration, now and repeatedly prior to the election.
Make certain you know the rules for your jurisdiction. If you plan to vote in person, check whether they have temporarily changed your voting location due to the pandemic. Take your own pen, a mask, and remember to distance yourself from others. If you are young and healthy, perhaps you might volunteer to be a poll worker this year, because of the pandemic; you may find you like it.
If you plan to vote by mail, make certain you read and understand all the rules around it, such as possibly not being able to vote in person once you cast your mail-in ballot. Voting by mail is not always the same as absentee voting, so check the rules.
Learn how your county’s or state’s voting systems work, and lobby for more security and recountability. Make certain the officials are auditing the elections.
Get involved! Do they permit watchers to help follow the chain of custody of the ballots where you live? Volunteer to watch! Work the polls! Watch the polls!
Stop listening to the propaganda, stop forwarding emails. Listen to the candidates, make your choices.
There is one thing for certain: the more we all get involved in elections, the better the process – and our government – can become.