In just a few days, the state Board of Elections will make a decision that will affect the security of our elections for years to come: certifying which voting machines can be used in our state.
I’ve spent my career at the intersection of tech and politics. I studied Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California, Berkeley and took computer security with electronic voting expert David Wagner. After a number of years as a programmer in Silicon Valley, I’m currently working to improve tech policy as a fellow at the Aspen Institute’s Tech Policy Hub. I’m worried that some of the voting machines that the Board of Elections may certify are fundamentally insecure – not because they have too little technology but because they have too much.
It may surprise you to hear a technologist advocate for hand-marked paper ballots, but experts unanimously agree that electronic voting machines are inherently flawed. After the 2000 Presidential election highlighted issues with paper punch card ballots (remember those pesky “hanging chads”, Congress passed legislation incentivizing states to update their voting equipment. Seeking to avoid the issues with punch-based systems, many states bought completely electronic systems where voters make selections on a touchscreen and votes are stored electronically. Today, roughly ⅓ of North Carolinians vote on these 15-year-old machines.
Unfortunately, we overcorrected and now rely on voting machines that are irreparably insecure. Time and time again, researchers have found serious flaws which allow attackers to change votes. No aspect of the machine is secure – experts have manipulated everything from the code that registers a vote to the electronic chips that store tabulation instructions. It doesn’t take an expert to find these defects. Some mistakes are so trivial that even a novice programmer can exploit them. Other machines have been compromised in less than 10 minutes.
A common “solution” to thwart attacks against voting machines (thus implicitly acknowledging them) is to couple these machines with a paper receipt. This paper trail allows voters to verify their digital selections and serves as the source of truth during an audit. But this failsafe is ineffective.
Consider a proposed constitutional amendment to declare pulled pork the state’s official BBQ. Not wanting to leave anything up to chance, brisket fans systematically hack voting machines and change the text of the amendment displayed on the touchscreen to “Is the Earth flat?” The amendment is defeated in a landslide. While the selections on every paper receipt matched the voter’s selection, they may not have matched the voter’s intention.
It’s possible for voting systems to be compromised before they even leave the factory. Vendors boast that their systems use common, off-the-shelf technology. This is bureaucracy-speak for cheap, an important consideration for cash-strapped counties. It also almost certainly means that these components are manufactured in China. Components manufactured abroad are more susceptible to a so-called supply-chain attack where an adversary manipulates the machine during the manufacturing process. Given the complexity of modern electronics, these types of attacks are virtually impossible to detect.
Operational challenges would also be solved by hand-marked paper ballots. A few years ago, I ran for the state legislature. While campaigning in Guilford County, which uses old touchscreen machines, several voters reported that their selections were not recorded correctly, a problem known to election officials for over a decade. In a year of extraordinary turnout, lines stretched for hours due to the lack of machines. Machines failed at inopportune times, further limiting capacity. Paper ballots never break, easily scale to demand, and are intuitive to use.
The decision the state Board of Elections makes will reverberate for years. Before us lies an opportunity to implement a world-class voting infrastructure by going back to the basics. Board members on both sides of the aisle should acknowledge the overwhelming expert consensus and refuse to certify any voting system that does not make use of hand-marked paper ballots.
This op-ed was submitted to several local papers in North Carolina prior to publication here.