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America has an election access problem — tech can't solve it

America has an election access problem — tech can't solve it
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Long linesconfusion and malfunctioning machines plagued the Super Tuesday vote earlier this week, as thousands of Americans voted – or attempted to vote – in the presidential primaries. Some states and municipalities have turned to electronic voting machines or mobile voting apps to make voting more accessible and convenient for all. But solving America’s voting access problems will require long-term legal and policy changes, not just new technology.

Many voters waited for hours for a chance to vote in the primaries on Tuesday. These waits may have disproportionately affected communities with large populations of black and Latino voters. Excessively long wait times (some reported upwards of six hours) hurt all Americans, especially many who already face greater barriers to democratic participation.

An hours-long wait creates disparate negative impacts on the poor, the working class and all people whose wages are paid on an hourly or contract basis. Long wait times also hurt parents and guardians of children, especially those who cannot afford childcare. People with disabilities, who already have more difficulty accessing voting sites, also suffer with long wait times. The lines for many polling places extend outside, into cold and dark environments, sometimes past reasonable hours for public transportation.

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Many have proposed new technological solutions to improve election accessibility. These include electronic voting machines, like the ones that seemed to malfunction in Los Angeles on Super Tuesday, as well as mobile voting apps, like the one that malfunctioned in the Iowa Democratic primary. However, not only do these technologies often fail to function at critical moments, but they also often fail to protect the security and integrity of the votes cast. Cybersecurity experts have long criticized voting technologies for a multitude of reasons, including the potential for hackers and bad actors to manipulate votes as well as the lack of auditable receipts to confirm accuracy.

Technology cannot solve for America’s election access problems. But calling for a reversion to paper ballots only is not the correct path forward either. There are some problems that better voting technology can help solve. For example, paper ballots will never be truly accessible for blind or vision-impaired voters. Simply accessing a physical polling place is also a difficult burden for many people with disabilities. In an ideal world, voting machines could potentially make polling places more efficient, decreasing the time it takes for volunteers to count paper ballots, among other things.

The voting technology we have today is not functional enough or secure enough to protect the rights for all people to vote, and we should not accept a “separate but equal” division of less secure and less functional voting for already disenfranchised people. However, we should continue research into improving these technologies, so that we can eventually improve access for all. We should also encourage more good faith cybersecurity security research on these technologies. 

Instead of relying on technology, we should address election access problems through legal and policy changes. Election Day should be a federal holiday, so that people will be able to vote – and even wait in lines to vote – without worrying about losing their jobs. Voter registration should be automatic on a national level, as it already is in many states, including Massachusetts. Voters (including overseas military and citizens abroad) should be able to vote by mail and vote early, as is already the case in many states. Additionally, Congress must move forward on legislation that will restore Voting Rights Act protections against voter suppression efforts.

It can be harder to interest people in long-term law and policy changes, compared to voting technologies, which are shiny and new. Unlike over-hyped voting technology claims, these proposals can actually help solve election access issues. Better election technology might one day increase access to the polls. But the current voting technologies we have are not secure enough or strong enough to operate at the scale and speed we would need for national elections. 

It’s clear that we need to do better to empower all Americans to exercise the most essential democratic right — the right to vote in free and fair elections. While voting technology can help, what we really need to focus on is implementing long-term legal and policy changes to secure our elections and our democracy.

Tiffany C. Li is an attorney and visiting professor at Boston University School of Law. She teaches in the BU/MIT Technology Law Clinic, whose clients have included election security researchers.