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Online Voting Won’t Save Democracy

Bruce Schneier

Bruce Schneier

Bruce Schneier

This article was originally published in The Atlantic on May 10, 2017.

Technology can do a lot more to make our elections more secure and reliable, and to ensure that participation in the democratic process is available to all. There are three parts to this process.

First, the voter registration process can improved. The whole process can be streamlined. People should be able to register online, just as they can register for other government services. The voter rolls need to be protected from tampering, as that’s one of the major ways hackers can disrupt the election.

Second, the voting process can be significantly improved. Voting machines need to be made more secure. There are a lot of technical details best left to the voting-security experts who can deal with the technical details, but such machines must include a paper ballot that provides a record verifiable by voters. The simplest and most reliable way to do that is already practiced in 37 states: optical-scan paper ballots, marked by the voters, counted by computer but recountable by hand.

We need national security standards for voting machines, and funding for states to procure machines that comply with those standards.

This means no Internet voting. While that seems attractive, and certainly a way technology can improve voting, we don’t know how to do that securely. We simply can't build an Internet voting system that is secure against hacking because of the requirement for a secret ballot. This makes voting different from banking and anything else we do on the Internet, and it makes security much harder. Even allegations of vote hacking would be enough to undermine confidence in the system, and we simply cannot afford that. We need a system of pre-election and post-election security audits of these voting machines to increase confidence in the system.

The third part of the voting process we need to secure is the tabulation system. After the polls close, we aggregate votes—from individual machines, to polling places, to precincts, and finally to totals. This system is insecure as well, and we can do a lot more to make it reliable. Similarly, our system of recounts can be made more secure and efficient.

We have the technology to do all of this. The problem is political will. We have to decide that the goal of our election system is for the most people to be able to vote with the least amount of effort. If we continue to enact voter suppression measures like ID requirements, barriers to voter registration, limitations on early voting, reduced polling place hours, and faulty machines, then we are harming democracy more than we are by allowing our voting machines to be hacked.

We have already declared out election system to be critical national infrastructure. This is largely symbolic, but it demonstrates a commitment to secure elections and makes funding and other resources available to states. We can do much more. We owe it to democracy to do it.

Bruce Schneier is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and the chief technology officer of Resilient Systems, Inc. He is the author of Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World.

This article is part of The Democracy Project, a collaboration with The Atlantic.

May 19, 2017

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