This article was originally published in The Atlantic on May 26, 2017.
It’s time to fix the voting process.
American voting systems have improved in recent years, but they collectively remain a giant mess. Voting is controlled by states, and typically administered by counties and local governments. Voting laws differ depending on where you are. Voting machines vary, too; there’s no standard system for the nation.
Accountability is a crapshoot. In some jurisdictions, voters use machines that create electronic tallies with no “paper trail”—that is, no tangible evidence whatsoever that the voter’s choices were honored. A “recount” in such places means asking the machine whether it was right the first time.
We need to fix all of this. But state and local governments are perpetually cash-starved, and politicians refuse to spend the money that would be required to do it.
Among many other needed measures promoted by nonprofit and nonpartisan Verified Voting, Congress should require standardized voting systems around the nation. It should insist on rock-solid security, augmented by frequent audits of hardware and software. Recounts should be performed routinely and randomly to ensure that verified-voting systems work as designed. The paper ballot generated by the machine should be the official ballot.
What Congress should emphatically not do is allow or encourage online voting. The sorry state of cybersecurity in general makes clear how foolhardy it would be to go anywhere near widespread “Internet voting” in the foreseeable future.
There’s one benefit to note in our massively decentralized voting systems: It would be harder to steal a national election. But flipping just a few precincts in some key districts and states could have outsized impact. There’s every incentive for malicious actors to try, though I don’t know if Russia or anyone else had a direct-hacking impact in 2016. But why do we keep taking these kinds of risks?
For reasons that remain unclear, Congress has been largely uninterested in doing what’s needed to make voting safe, secure, and verifiable (perhaps because the existing system is how members got elected). In President Obama’s final weeks in office, the Department of Homeland Security added voting machines to its “critical infrastructure” list, but there’s no sign that Congress will back that statement with money to get things done, and under Trump all bets are off.
Barring a national commitment to getting this right, maybe the answer is to change direction entirely. Maybe we should abandon electronic voting systems and do everything on paper, and count by hand. We’d wait longer for results, a lot longer. If it ensured accurate results, though, I’d call that a reasonable trade.
Dan Gillmor teaches digital-media literacy and entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. He is the author of several books about technology and media.
This article is part of The Democracy Project, a collaboration with The Atlantic.