Voting machines should be seen as critical democracy infrastructure

At the Open Source Election Technology Foundation (OSET), a 10-year old Silicon Valley based nonprofit election technology research institute, we are encouraged by valuable dialog underway about how to protect America’s aging and vulnerable voting machinery and evolve our systems with technology for ease and confidence. 

Setting aside some misunderstanding about the challenges elections officials face in administering a nationwide patchwork quilt of election technology, there is a critical mass on the left and the right discussing how to protect our “critical democracy infrastructure.”

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Part of the problem is that by design, our nation’s voting infrastructure is a balkanized system comprised of a small number of vendors’ machinery, combined with a variety of ways of casting and counting ballots. While a large-scale national attack is highly unlikely, such would be unnecessary to derail a general election. In fact, it only requires a targeted attack of a few machines in a key county of a swing State.

So, does that mean we’re still a sitting duck for a possible derailed election? Are we heading toward an election debacle bigger than the “Florida Chad Fest” of 2000? At the very least, remember that today unlike 2000, social media can help a lie circle the globe before the truth can find the keyboard.

While candidates on the left and the right use the new four-letter word “rigged” and call for election observers, we need to understand that elections officials work hard to make sure the charges of people voting multiple times and other illegal activity doesn’t occur.  There are straightforward, low-tech things we can do today to improve the integrity of our elections.

While further study is underway on a more holistic approach to ensure America’s voting infrastructure is given the same priority and protection as other infrastructure like air traffic control, water supplies, or the power grid, here are just four ways to reduce the likelihood of disruption or cheating this November:

1.    Do not connect anything related to ballots, counting, or voter check-in to the Internet — and in many cases no local wireless networking should be allowed.  Using an Internet connection is no longer a convenience or shortcut in the grey area of safety — it's a possible vulnerability with national security implications.

2.   Physically secure the election back-office systems. The typical election management system (EMS) is a nearly decade old desktop computer running software no longer manufactured. Yet, the EMS is the brain of the voting system, and "programs" the voting machines for each election. So, put them in locked rooms, with physical access controls to ensure that only authorized people ever touch them, and never alone.

3.   Require the use of law enforcement officers for transfers of all voting related materials (i.e., ballot boxes, eVoting machines, removable storage, tabulators, poll books, poll worker activity logs and sign-off sheets, and anything that goes to the central facility) from voting places to counting facilities, with documented signed transfer, dual custody, and similar measures applied to critical physical resources in other risky environments. 


4.   Require voter registration database systems be physically separate from Internet-connected systems (including online voter registration Apps), rather than separated by technical measures that are subject to human error or insider threat. 


Longer term, we need careful consideration of what it would mean to designate America’s voting systems as “critical (democracy) infrastructure.”  The U.S. Department of Homeland Security cannot do this in a vacuum. They must proactively collaborate with States’ election professionals, and engage with all relevant parties to ensure a long-term sustainable and scalable approach. 

And digital innovation must be a part of that discussion, because the casting and counting of 120 million+ ballots in time for orderly transfer of Presidential powers can no longer be done in time by hand. And we need to think through the continuing challenges of our fellow Americans needing to cast ballots remotely, especially our military from overseas. Meager and finite budgets are forcing vulnerabilities into the systems — emailing or uploading a cast ballot is not secure.

At OSET we know from a decade of work to increase integrity, lower cost, and improve the usability of voting machines, that a designation of “critical infrastructure” is essential to increasing confidence in elections and their outcomes. This is an American challenge of great importance to invest in, regardless of political views. 

But, first things first, let’s take some sensible steps to protect this November election. In parallel let’s continue the dialog on bringing our voting machinery and election administration into the 21st century.

Gregory Miller is the co-founder of the Open Source Election Technology (OSET) Foundation, a 501.c.3 nonprofit election technology research institute headquartered in Palo Alto, California.


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