Municipalities that upgraded election tech in the years after the 2000 debacle are now working with equipment that is more than 10 years old.
John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology and government. He is currently the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys.
I guess it’s officially election time again.
Being over a year out, I had safely been burying my head in the sand for as long as possible, but I saw the very first political sign of the season planted along the highway this week. Like a fungus, it will soon multiply and bloom into signs of all shapes, sizes and colors supporting their candidate, party or issue.
Radio, TV and Internet ads will follow, bombarding us with so much information, and sometimes misinformation, that it will seem like Nov. 8, 2016 can’t come soon enough.
But while many of us cringe at the way elections are promoted, very few of us normally worry about the fairness of the election process itself.
Sometimes, there are problems, with the infamous Bush and Gore election of the year 2000 still being a sore spot for a lot of people. In that case, the problem was a confusing, to both use and to record, paper ballot in Florida that put the results of the very tight election on hold for a month, and led to a controversial Supreme Court decision that basically named Bush as the next president.
At the time, there was a lot of talk about reforming our election technology, and many counties and states did follow up on that by adding electronic voting and doing away with paper ballots.
However, even the municipalities that did upgrade back then are now working with equipment more than 10 years old, which is about the end of life for most voting systems. That makes the chance of another year 2000-like mishap in the pending presidential election more possible than many people might suspect.
I got to thinking about all of this after listening to the CEO of Smartmatic talk about voting technology at the 2015 Founders Forum for Good in New York City. Smartmatic makes voting technology that has been used in over 3,500 elections worldwide, with its machines recording and counting over 2.3 billion votes. According to CEO Antonio Mugica, whom I was able to chat with following the event, the technology exists to ensure that election results are completely accurate, auditable and verifiable.
And while it’s too close to the election to implement it in the United States for 2016, it’s probably something government should consider doing by 2018 or 2020 if nothing else.
The Smartmatic technology is trusted because the source code that runs all of the voting machines is disclosed to all interested parties prior to the election. Not everyone gets to see and contribute to the code, so it’s not open source, but election officials and representatives from all the major political parties are able to go over it in detail to ensure no vote flipping routines or program errors exist.
Once satisfied the code is clean and fair, those officials digitally sign the code. Their signatures become invalid if even one bit flips from that point on. The digitally signed code then gets loaded into each voting machine prior to the election. At any point during the election or afterwards, the code can be checked to ensure the digital signatures are still intact.
In addition to a clean source code, Smartmatic technology records every vote cast in seven different places, including an offline digital repository and on paper.
At the end of an election, it is a relatively simple process to verify all seven sources match one another exactly. I would not say it’s impossible, but let’s just say nearly impossible, that someone would be able to hack or alter all seven sources, including the paper backups, and thus try to change an election without getting caught.
Going a step further, Mugica believes it’s even possible that Internet voting could work and also be secure.
In fact, Smartmatic has been doing just that for Estonia since 2004. Estonia is kind of a special case because it is way ahead of the United States in that each citizen there has a secure personal ID that can be used for transactions like voting. It has also a much smaller pool of voters, with 176,329 ballots cast in the country's last election.
But there are ways Internet voting could possibly replace paper voting in the U.S. for absentee ballots and voting by deployed military personnel.
“Paper ballots are by far the least secure way for votes to be cast,” Mugica said. “They can be manipulated, accidentally lost or even purposely destroyed before they are counted. If we could provide an electronic alternative for the military for example, which has a personal identity system, then we could ensure that all of those votes are properly counted, much more reliably than having them dropped in the mail with no oversight.”
Internet voting on a wide scale is probably way out of bounds for a country as large as the United States. And you know hackers would do anything to disrupt such a process.
But adding secure voting technology to the polling places with digitally signed source codes, and saving the collected data in multiple, secure locations is worth investigating. Everyone hopes the presidential election of 2016 goes smoothly, but with aging technology that is no guarantee anymore.
Voting for our public officials is one of the most important responsibilities for citizens in a democracy. We shouldn’t wait for something to go wrong again to start thinking about fixes.
Instead, we need to devote as much of our technology, creativity and effort as possible into protecting this most sacred of rights.