Old School, New Tech: What’s Really Behind Today’s Elections
Many thanks to coverage by Bloomberg’s Michaela Ross, on election tech and cyber-security.
Given so much at stake for this election with its credibility rocked by claims of rigging, and so much more at stake as we move ahead to replace and improve our election infrastructure, I’m rarely enthused about reading more about how some people think Internet voting is great, and others think it is impossible. However, Ms. Ross did a great job of following that discussion about how “Old School May Be Better” with supporting remarks from many long time friends and colleagues in election administration and technology worlds.
Where I’d like to respond is to re-frame the “old” part of “old school” and to reject one remark from a source that Ross quoted: “They’re pretending what we do today is secure … There’s not a mission critical process in the world that uses 150-year-old technology.” Three main points here:
- There is plenty of new technology in the so-called old school;
- No credible election expert pretends that our ballots are 100% secure, not even close; and
- That’s why we have several new and old protections on the election process, including some of that new technology.
Let me address that next in three parts, mostly about what’s old and what’s new, then circle back to the truth about security, and lastly a comment on iVoting that I’ll most defer to a later re-up on the iVoting scene.
Old and New
Here is what’s old: paper ballots. We use them because we recognize the terrible omission in voting machines from the late 19th century mechanical lever machines (can be hacked with toothpicks, tampered with screwdrivers, and retain no record of any voter’s intent other than numbers on odometer dials) and many of today’s paperless touchscreens: “hack-able” and “tamper-able” even more readily, and likewise with no actual ballot other than bits on a disk. We use paper ballots (or paper-added touchscreens as a stop-gap) because no machine can be trusted to accurately record every voter’s intent. We need paper ballots not just for disputes and recounts, but fundamentally as a way to cross check the work of the machines.
Here’s what’s new: recently defined scientific statistical methods to conduct a routine ballot audit for every election, to cross check the machines’ work, with far less effort and cost than today’s “5% manual count and compare” and variant methods used in some states. It’s never been easier to use machines for rapid counts and quick unofficial results, and then (before final results) to detect and correct instances of machine inaccuracies whether from bugs, tampering, physical failure, or other issues. It’s called “Risk Limiting Audit“ or RLA.
Here’s what new-ish: the new standard approach is for paper ballots to be rapidly machine counted using optical scanners and digital image processing software. There are a lot of old clunky and expensive (to buy, maintain, and store) op-scanners still in use, but this isn’t “150 years old,” any more than our modern ballots are like the old 19th-century party-machine-politics balloting that was rife with fraud that led to the desire for the old lever machines. However, these older machines have low to no support for RLA.
Here’s what’s newer: many people have mobile computers in their pocket that can run optical-capture and digital image processing. It’s no longer a complicated job to make a small, inexpensive device that can read some paper, record what’s on it, and retain records that humans can cross check. There’s no reason why the op-scan method needs to be old and clunky. And with new systems, it is easy to keep the type of records (technically, a “cast vote record” for each ballot) needed for easy support for RLA.
And finally, here’s the really good part: innovation is happening to make the process easier and stronger, both here at the OSET Institute and elsewhere ranging from local to state election officials, Federal organizations like EAC and NIST, universities, and other engines of tech innovation. The future looks more like this:
- Polling place voting machines called “ballot marking devices” that use a familiar inexpensive tablet to collect a voter’s ballot choices, and print them onto a simple “here’s all and only what you chose” ballot to
be easily and independently verified by the voter, and cast for optical scanning.
- Devices and ballots with professionally designed and scientifically tested usability and accessibility for the full range of voters’ needs.
- Simple inexpensive ballot scanners for these modern ballots.
- Digital sample ballots using the voter’s choice of computer, tablet, or phone, to enable the voter to take their own time navigating the ballot, and creating a “selections worksheet” that can be scanned into a
ballot marking device to confirm, correct if needed, and create the ballot cast in a polling place …
- … or to be used in a vote-by-mail process, without the need to wait for an official blank ballot to arrive in the mail.
- And below that tip of the iceberg for the critical ballot-related operations, there is a range of other innovations to streamline voter registration, voter check-in, absentee ballot processing, voter services
and apps to navigate the whole process and avoid procedural hurdles or long lines, interactive election results exploration and analytics, and more …
- … and all with the ability for election official to provide open public data on the outcome of the whole election process, and every voter’s success in participation or lack thereof.
That’s a lot of new tech that’s in the pipeline or in use already, but in still in the old school.
Finally, two last points to loop back to Michaela’s article.
Election Protection in the Real World
First, everyone engaged in elections knows that no method of casting and counting ballots is secure.
- Vote by mail ballots go to election officials by mail passing through many hands, not all of which may seem trustworthy to the voters.
- Email ballots and other digital ballots go to election officials via the Internet — again via many “virtual hands” that are definitely not trustworthy — and to computers that election officials may not fully control.
- Polling place ballots in ballot boxes are transported by mere mortals who can make mistakes, encounter mishaps, and as in a very few recent historical cases, may be dishonest insiders.
- Voting machines are easily tampered with by those with physical access, including temp workers and contractors in warehouses, transportation services, and pre-election preparations.
- The “central brains” behind the voting machines is often an ordinary antique PC with no real protection in today’s daunting threat environment.
- The beat goes on with voter records systems, electronic poll books, and more.
That’s why today’s election officials work so hard on the people and processes to contain these risks, and retain control over these vital assets throughout a complex process that — honestly, going forward — could be a lot simpler and easier with innovations designed to reduce the level of effort and complexity of these same type of protections.
The Truth About iVoting Today
Secondly, lastly, and mostly for another time: Internet voting. It’s desirable, it will likely happen someday, and it will require a solid R&D program to invent the tech that can do the job with all the protections — whether against, fraud, coercion, manipulation, and accidental or intention disenfranchisement — the we have today in our state-managed, locally-operated, and (delightfully but often frustratingly) hodge podge process of voting in 9,000+ jurisdictions across the US. I repeat, all, no compromises; no waving the magic fairy wands of trust-me-it-works-because-it-is-cool or blockchains or so-called “military grade” encryption or whatever the latest cool geek cred item is.
In the meantime short-term, we have to shore up the current creaky systems and process, especially to address the issues of “rigging,” and the crazy amount of work election professionals have to do get the job done and maintain order and trust.
And then we have to replace the current systems in the existing process with innovations that also serve to increase trust and transparency. If we don’t fix the election process that we have now, and soon, we risk the hasty addition of i-voting systems that are just as creaky and flawed, hastily adopted, and poorly understood, the same as the paperless voting machines that adopted more than a decade ago.
We can do better, in the short-term and long, and we will. A large and growing set of election and tecnology folks, in organizations of many kinds, are dedicated to making these improvements happen, especially as this election cycle has shown us all how vitally important it is.
— John Sebes