Glenn Reynolds is responding to the latest round of news about Russian attempts to hack into American voting systems (along with whoever else may have been doing it) with a blast from the past. Electronic voting systems which are hooked to the internet haven’t been demonstrably proven to have had vote totals altered yet (more on that in a bit) but, as Glenn points out, everyone is on edge about it and conceding that it could happen. With that in mind, Professor Reynolds is once again beating the drum to lead us back to a much harder to rig system… paper ballots. I’ll let him explain this part of it.
In some ways, paper and ink is a super technology. When you cast a vote on a voting machine, all that’s recorded is who you voted for. But a paper ballot captures lots of other information: Ink color, handwriting, etc. If you have access to a voting machine that’s connected to the Internet, you can change all the votes at once. To change a bunch of paper ballots takes physical access, and unless you’re very careful the changed ballots will show evidence of tampering. Paper ballots aren’t fraud-proof, of course, as a century of Chicago politics demonstrates, but they’re beyond the reach of some guy sitting at a computer in a basement halfway around the world. And there are well-known steps to make Chicago-style fraud harder.
Perhaps it’s time to mandate paper ballots, and to also legally require other steps to ensure election integrity. Vote-counting systems should be transparent, and regularly audited. Voter ID should be strictly enforced, as it is in all advanced democracies to ensure that only eligible voters vote. And voter registrations should be audited frequently to ensure the removal of voters who have died or moved away. Maybe we should even dye voters’ fingers to prevent revoting, as is done in many other countries. There’s no way to hack that.
Whew. There’s quite the mixed bag of solutions in there. Auditing of vote-counting systems? Yes, please. Voter ID? Count me in. Auditing the voter rolls? Absolutely. Dye voters’ fingers? Well… perhaps we shouldn’t get too carried away here.
But mostly I wanted to address the paper ballot issue since I’ve been screaming about this myself for years. Anything that requires the intervention of human hands in one form or another provides us with a link in the chain of possession which a hacker can’t invisibly penetrate. This ties in with my running theory that the internet eventually ruins everything it touches, but it’s particularly true in this case. We seem to have been blithely assuming that our voting system is secure, but we live in a world where hackers have broken into the computer systems of our largest banks, major retailers and even government websites. (On a pretty much weekly basis.) Are we really going to be this sanguine about the idea that whatever group of bureaucrats is handling our voting infrastructure is that much more on the ball than Wells Fargo?
Also, the only thing the experts seem to be able to say definitively thus far is that we can’t prove that hackers have ever changed a vote. What’s left out of that sentence is the accompanying fact that in a massive system such as ours, we also can’t definitively say that they haven’t and we just haven’t discovered it yet. There’s some food for thought.
I’m not saying we necessarily have to go to a system of only paper ballots which are filled out by hand and carried to Washington on horseback, but some sort of paper trail identifiable by the voter should be common sense at a bare minimum. And those ballots need to be spot checked regularly and randomly, along with mandatory hand counts in areas where the results begin to suddenly look like they’ve drifted measurably from what’s anticipated. What’s the objection to such an idea? That you won’t have the results piped in to your local news station three minutes after the polls close? I think we can all wait a bit longer for something as critical as electing our government representatives.
This entire Russia, Russia, Russia thing may not turn up anything in terms of “collusion” but it will have done us a favor if it serves as a brisk slap in the face over the integrity of our voting system. We can afford the paper and we have the time. There’s no reason not to do this.