Old Voting Tech Puts 2016 Election at Risk — Time for a Veto?

November 16, 2015
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3 min read

In just under a year, Americans will head to the polls to cast their ballots: Democrat or Republican? Carson or Clinton, perhaps Sanders or Trump? But even 12 months out, political and tech experts are starting to worry that current voting technology won’t be able to keep up with citizen demand.

Worst case? A repeat of the 2000 election debacle in Florida, which is still under investigation today. Best case? The country gets on board with at least some electoral advancements to help safeguard the process.

Current Methods

What options are available to current voters looking to cast their ballot in the upcoming election? USA.gov’s “Voting and Registering to Vote” page provides the basics: Citizens can turn up in person at their local polling station with applicable ID, or if they’re away from home, they may vote using a mail-in absentee ballot.

Making the process more complicated is the fact that citizens must register to vote in federal elections at the state level, and all states have their own registration methods in place. For example, 23 states allow voters to register online, while others only accept a hard copy of the National Mail Voter Registration Form.

But there’s a twist: Certain states like North Dakota and Wyoming, along with territories such as American Samoa, Guam and Puerto Rico, don’t accept the National Mail Voter Registration Form, meaning citizens must register in person at specific government offices.

Existing Hardware

Once voters are registered, the next step is actually casting their ballots. Online voting has been brought up time and time again over the last decade, always with negative results; citizens must vote by mail or in-person. As noted by Verified Voting, there are a number of methods still in use across the U.S. to tally in-person ballots. For example, hand-counted paper ballots remain a popular choice, and at least one state used punch cards in its last election. More common are optical scan paper ballot systems, which eliminate the need for counting by hand. There are also direct recording electronic (DRE) systems that use push buttons, touch screens or dials.

The problem? According to a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice, even DRE systems are nearing the end of their life span. Many states are using machines that are no longer produced, making it difficult to find replacement parts, which is especially worrisome since some touch-screen machines are in such poor shape that voting selections aren’t registered or are tallied for the wrong candidate.

What’s more, some systems have been identified as potential cyberattack vectors: Cybercriminals could potentially use DRE wireless features to “record voting data or inject malicious data,” according to the report.

Online Voting Worries

Discussion of American elections always brings up the same question: Why can’t citizens vote online? According to a CNN article published prior to the last federal election, the biggest problem with online voting isn’t the technology to support ballot collection, casting or counting, but the worry that personal computers and devices would act as points of compromise and undermine the entire effort. It’s worth noting, however, that other countries aren’t so reticent: The Canadian government has slowly been introducing the idea of online voting to help bolster vote numbers, while the nation of Estonia has allowed Internet-based voting since 2005.

As noted CityLab, even companies that supply voting technology are pushing for a change. U.K.-based Smartmatic, which provides touch screens and optical scanners to 307 counties and 16 states in the U.S., argued that online voting is the future of election technology. Security remains a top priority since data would require encryption, signatures and the ability to accurately identify citizens before they vote, but going online comes with significant benefits. For example, the convenience of online voting tends to increase voter turnout. There are also unique ways to deal with problems like multiple ballot-casting; in Estonia, citizens can vote as many times as they like but only their final ballot counts.

Politically Incorrect?

So where does the conflux of old, new and in-between ballot technology leave the U.S. as the 2016 election looms? It currently has the potential to tip either way — to make the next vote safer, faster and smarter or rely on compromised technology to return suspect results. Two factors have real potential to influence the outcome: cost and security.

Cost could be problematic: The Brennan report noted that while electoral jurisdictions in at least 31 states know they need better technology, 22 don’t know where they’ll get the money to purchase new machines. But according to Smartmatic Board Chairman Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, running an election on modern technology is much cheaper than relying on outdated machines and failing technology.

Security concerns, meanwhile, often revolve around the fear that online votes will be miscast, miscounted or simply misused by cybercriminals. With existing DRE machines already vulnerable to attack, however, this isn’t exactly a defensible foundation.

American elections are at a crossroads. Existing technology opens up the process to serious cybersecurity concerns; to some extent, even paper ballots are safer and more reliable. Going online offers a viable alternative if lawmakers, politicians and cybersecurity experts can find a way to balance speed and safety. Ultimately, the goal is to give citizens the best access possible to their democratic right; voting technology should empower and encourage rather than obfuscate and obsolesce.

Douglas Bonderud
Freelance Writer

A freelance writer for three years, Doug Bonderud is a Western Canadian with expertise in the fields of technology and innovation. In addition to working for...
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