Scientific evidence and securing the vote: Verdict is in, now we need the funds

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The Senate Intelligence Committee recently released its much-anticipated report on election security and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Alongside the alarming insights regarding Russian interference, there are critical recommendations based on scientific evidence regarding the security of our voting process, including the replacement of “outdated and vulnerable voting systems.”

In too many counties across the country, ballots are being cast on insecure electronic systems. These direct recording electronic systems record a voter’s selection directly to the machine’s memory and automatically tabulate votes. Many leave no physical record of the vote cast.

Within the scientific community, there has been consistent alarm regarding the security vulnerabilities of these direct recording electronic systems. Just last year, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine issued a report finding that paperless direct recording electronic machines are not secure and should be removed from service as soon as possible. The committee of computer science and cybersecurity experts, legal and election scholars, social scientists, and election officials concluded that local, state, and federal elections should be conducted using human-readable paper ballots, either marked by hand or machine.

Every effort should be taken to ensure that direct recording electronic machines are removed from service prior to the 2020 election.

Regardless of the vendor or configuration, direct recording electronic systems are fundamentally unverifiable. While hacking is the most discussed concern, these systems are also vulnerable to everyday coding mistakes or errors that could lead to the same inaccurate results as malicious hacking. To effectively safeguard public confidence in our elections and democracy, we must  ensure that every vote is counted accurately.

We are pleased to see that the Senate Intelligence Committee has integrated the scientific evidence into their recommendations, specifically in stating that “paper ballots and optical scanners are the least vulnerable to cyber attack” and “at a minimum, any machine purchased going forward should have a voter-verified paper trail and remove any wireless networking capability.”

The report also highlights another area of concern for scientists: statistically sound auditing. The report states that “statistically sound audits may be the simplest and most direct way to ensure confidence in the integrity of the vote.” Risk-limiting audits, which have been endorsed by the American Statistical Association, are designed to provide statistical evidence of whether the outcome of the election is accurate with a high level of confidence. They are often less expensive and resource-intensive than traditional full recounts but require an auditable paper trail — another reason why paper ballots are critical.

We recognize that scientific evidence is often only one of many factors to consider in decisions, and we appreciate the time, money, and resources it takes for local officials to implement new audit procedures or replace equipment they have used for years. But these changes are essential for the security of our elections.

Across the country, states have been clear regarding the need for additional federal funding to support upgrades to their voting systems. Secretaries of State from Pennsylvania, Florida, California, West Virginia, Ohio, and others have explicitly stated the need for additional funding. In many of the states still using direct recording electronic systems, the lack of funding prevents election officials from moving to more secure systems.

Elsewhere, despite the scientific evidence, some election officials are planning to purchase new direct recording electronic systems. Although additional federal funding for election security is paramount, these funds should not be allowed to be spent on unverifiable systems that scientists and security experts agree are unsecure.

In outlining recommendations for securing the vote, the Senate Intelligence Committee report rightly notes that “when safeguarding the integrity of U.S. elections, all relevant elements of the government — including at the federal, state, and local level — need to be forward looking and work to address vulnerabilities before they are exploited.”

Securing our elections is a shared responsibility. As representatives of the scientific community, we hope to do our part by providing officials at the federal, state, and local level with scientific evidence to inform their decision-making. The stakes are too high — and our elections are too important — for us not to all work together.

Michael D. Fernandez is the founding director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues.


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