With the 2018 midterm elections, the United States yet again found itself struggling to shape policies around how it casts and counts votes. Alarm bells were set off by everything from voting machine paper jams to the security of paperless electronic voting machines. Politicians and pundits debated against the uneasy backstory of foreign interference in our most recent presidential election, underscoring the work that remains to be done to improve the efficiency and security of our voting systems. But how did we get here? Why is it that one of the most technically advanced nations in the world is experiencing such an acute crisis in the tallying of votes? The answer is not simple — nor does it have a simple solution. However, at this moment, when faith and trust in our democratic system is in jeopardy, it is crucial that we understand the history of voting technology in this country. It is only then that we can begin to understand how the problem can be fixed.
The counting of votes is organized around two potentially competing priorities or values: accuracy and timeliness. Accuracy requires that the final vote tally reflect the correct aggregate of votes cast by eligible voters. However, a city or county could spend months and months counting and recounting its votes under a system that valued only accuracy. Nevertheless, governance requires the smooth transition of power, which explains the pressure to count ballots quickly — that is, the value of timeliness. The faster an initial tally can be completed, the more confidence the community will have that an election was not meddled with. Both considerations — accuracy and timeliness — are important. It is the tension between the two that drives the conversation around voting technology and voting reforms.
Joseph P. Harris’s seminal Election Administration in the United States (1934) provides a survey of earlier vote tabulation systems. Lever voting machines were used throughout the country for much of the 20th century. These hulking machines provided voters with a confidential way to cast ballots, accounting in large part for their popularity. However, they were very challenging to operate, and a wayward jolt could reset — erroneously — the vote tabulation system. Beginning in the 1960s and ’70s, lever machines started to give way to paper-based systems like punch-card voting machines (the vote is “punched” out of the paper ballot) and optical-scan machines (voters fill in the oval connected to the candidate of their choice).
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The debate around voting technology rose to national prominence after the 2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore and the subsequent Florida recount. Who can forget the images of election officials holding up paper punch-card ballots to a magnifying glass, attempting to discern a voter’s intent? Public frustration with hanging chads, swinging chads, and dimpled chads (each representing a dysfunction of the punch-card ballot) became a national scandal. The multiple points of failure were certainly compounded by the closeness of the election. In the ensuing policy debate Congress and President Bush acknowledged the importance of guaranteeing state-to-state consistency in federal elections and setting forth baseline requirements for voting-systems security. In 2002 Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which authorized more than $3 billion dollars for voting modernization, including voting machine replacement and the establishment of statewide voter registration lists. The act also created the bipartisan U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), which developed and approved voluntary standards for voting systems, distributed HAVA funds, and established best practices.
With the advent of the new law and the promise of new funding, more states made the move to electronic voting machines. These systems were developed by private-sector companies and were already in use in some jurisdictions, but large-scale purchases had been infrequent because of inadequate funding. That changed with HAVA. Jurisdictions used the new funds to purchase new equipment, but whether that equipment complied with election law was not entirely clear.
Many jurisdictions (with some notable exceptions) have adopted paper-based voting systems for most processes.
At the same time, questions were emerging about paperless electronic voting equipment and whether it could be relied upon in a recount or audit. Some advocates of verified voting, inspired in part by then-Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ), pushed for voter-verifiable paper audit trails (VVPATs), which are produced at the same time that an electronic vote is cast. Given that many jurisdictions had just purchased electronic voting machines with HAVA funds, there was some reluctance on the part of states of having to “go back to paper.” Efforts to pass Rep. Holt’s bill at the federal level failed, but his work to promote a paper backstop would have a lasting impact.
While many jurisdictions continued to purchase new paperless voting machines, efforts at the state level to promote optical-scan ballots or voter-verifiable paper records have gradually gained traction over the last decade, with a number of states passing laws requiring paper ballots. Many jurisdictions (with some notable exceptions) have adopted paper-based voting systems for most processes. For example, only five states (Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey, and South Carolina) did not produce a paper record associated with each individual vote cast in the 2018 midterm elections. Given these trends, the relatively small community of voting system vendors has also adjusted its approach, and today there are almost no options to purchase paperless voting systems. (A steadier stream of funding could help establish a voting system “replacement cycle,” reducing the market’s reliance on the one-time purchases of machines and allowing vendors to focus more on research and development, while also lowering the cost per system.)
The key to improving the voting process is straightforward: expand accessibility while also prioritizing security.
Enter the 2016 presidential election. While it is clear that there were foreign attempts to provoke and promote misinformation connected to the political campaign itself, there were also attempts to interfere with our voter registration and tabulation systems. Thankfully, much work has already been done to respond to these threats. The Department of Homeland Security has worked with the FBI and the chief election officials in all 50 states to identify and close gaps in security. In March 2018 Congress appropriated $380 million dollars for grants to the states to help fortify their election infrastructures, with an additional $300 million to combat Russian cyberattacks. Many experts and nonprofit organizations have worked to educate election officials and the public on better ways to secure their election systems. All states have accepted the federal grant dollars, and the vast majority of states have begun to use those funds. One way that states can utilize grant funding to increase security is to purchase voting systems that allow for audits and recounts.
While much attention has recently been paid to how technology has introduced vulnerabilities into our elections process, there are numerous examples of the ways that it has also improved the voting experience for millions of Americans. HAVA stipulated that voters with disabilities must be able to vote “privately and independently.” The recent emergence of “ballot-marking devices’” allows voters who are blind or have other disabilities to navigate a ballot using audio and tactile interfaces. Since 2002, 38 states plus the District of Columbia have moved toward a system of online voter registration, with many of those states allowing voters to check and update their registration via a single online portal rather than being forced to undertake a series of cumbersome trips to the county courthouse. But it’s the new technology of electronic pollbooks that offers the greatest potential to ease the voting process — providing directions to the right polling places, updating registrations on the spot, and even accommodating same-day registrations. Election offices have also started to employ wait-time measurement tools via websites and mobile apps to show voters when lines are shortest at a particular voting location. The key to improving the voting process is straightforward: expand accessibility while also prioritizing security.
The next steps in improving voting technology policies rest with election officials, policymakers, and voters. Commissioned by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Hewlett Foundation, Securing the Vote, a 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, examines and provides recommendations regarding key components of U.S. elections. The report makes a compelling case for using verifiable, auditable, and accessible voting systems, and should be heeded by states not currently employing them. Furthermore, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission needs to adopt the next iteration of voting system standards. Finally, Congress should develop a plan in conjunction with state funding mechanisms to deploy a steady stream of grant dollars to improve election security. The resource question is a key driver and determinant of whether election offices can plan for secure technology, and whether voting system vendors can devote the resources needed to guarantee transparency in this process. Technology continues to facilitate great advancements in our electoral infrastructure, which is why we must prioritize cybersecurity measures that will continue to safeguard the heart of our democracy. ■
Adam Ambrogi is the director of the Elections Program at the Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation working to ensure that our political system is able to withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people. He previously served as chief counsel to the Senate Rules Committee.
While the totality of the National Academy of Sciences report on voting technology is sobering, a country with the resources and technical expertise of the United States can make great progress, and quickly, if it has sufficient political will and resources.
By Zeynep Tufekci