By Glenn Harlan Reynolds | USA Today
I’ve been talking about the importance of protecting against voting-machine hacks since 2002. And now, finally, people are starting to take me seriously.
The move to paperless voting started in response to the Florida “hanging chad” fiasco in the 2000 presidential election. Some people (like me) thought this was a mistake, but such concerns were often dismissed. Now, apparently, you can’t be paranoid enough. As Politico’s Bob King noted, while 10 years ago critics of paperless voting were called paranoid, now both parties are worried.
It remains true that there is no actual evidence that a single vote was changed by hackers in the 2016 election. But even the possibility of hacking has served to promote the sort of conspiracy-mongering and political hatred that led to, for example, the shooting attack on Republican lawmakers last week. In a democratic polity, people have to believe that their votes are counted honestly, or the legitimacy of the system collapses.
And if we are to believe the latest NSA leaks on the subject, Russian (and other) hackers have been interested in American voting systems for a while, and that interest — contrary to Obama Administration assurances — didn’t decline after Obama made a “red phone” call to the Kremlin. (Perhaps even more troubling, many cyberattacks on state voting systems came from Department of Homeland Security computers.
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So what should we do? Well, we could try to boost our cybersecurity, but given that the NSA, the FBI and the CIA are leaking important secrets on a daily basis, maybe we’re not up to that job. So, once again, let me suggest that we return to something that, by its very nature, can’t be hacked by a guy in St. Petersburg: Paper ballots.
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.
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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.
We like to tell citizens that every vote counts. But actually, no vote counts unless it is counted. And even if it’s counted, it still doesn’t really count if it’s changed by hackers, or canceled out by someone else’s fraudulent vote.
It’s time, and past time, to get serious about ballot security. Because today’s paranoia and division is just a minor taste of what could happen next time, if we remain unprepared. America can’t afford that.