Election after election, more Americans are relying on electronic voting machines. The move seems natural. The idea of counting paper ballots is about as current as taking an abacus to the grocery store. Everything is digital, from our banking accounts to our social lives. Moving the voting process to the digital arena is the logical next step. But, as always, there are drawbacks. Your grandmother might even be one, but probably not in the way you think.
Continuing our tradition of starting by stating the obvious, the whole idea of democracy and voting hinges on the legitimacy of votes. Voters must believe that their vote will count, even if their preferred candidate loses. In essence, voting is the primary mode of expression in a democratic system. So, the questions surrounding voting machines have everything to do with whether or not every vote is counted correctly, and whether there is any way to know if there is an attempt to rig the game.
And now the terrifying part. The voting machine in which you put your faith each election system is, in some cases, marginally more sophisticated than an 80s Pacman game. One problem with these machines is that there is little uniformity. Made by different companies, some devices are less secure than others. This should not be taken in any way for a claim that any of these devices are actually secure.
First, the technical side. It is a safe assumption that, given the will, anything can be hacked. The easier the target, the more likely the event. This is why your grandmother gets more spam email than you, because she opens it. She is an easier mark, assuming she doesn’t work for MIT or something. By their nature, voting machines need to be affordable, user-friendly, transparent in output, easily serviceable and so on. The end result is not exactly an Enigma machine. It’s more like a PacMan arcade game.
As a result, many have demonstrated that voting machines are ludicrously simple to hack. They have been hacked in person, remotely, wirelessly, you name it. Voting machines can be altered without leaving a visible trace. And when there is a visible trace, the person on whom the government relies to maintain the integrity of the voting process is, you guessed it, your grandmother. Have you ever seen an election officer who looked like an IT guru? Of course not.
The problem then is multifaceted. The devices themselves are vulnerable. They are built to be affordable and easy to service, not to be the next telecommunications breakthrough. There is a very small budget for monitoring these devices. And election officials are not properly trained to stop or even notice these intrusions. Taken all together, it’s miraculous that bigger problems haven’t already occurred (or terrifying that we don’t even know about it).
But we’re curious what you think. Are voting machines the future, or should we go back to white and black stones dropped in a bucket? What needs to happen before voting machines are trusted? Do you trust them?