On Election Security

By Rob Hansen

Being a postgrad student has many similarities to being a medieval monk: your life is defined by poverty, austerity, study, obedience, and a serious lack of getting laid.  When I was doing my novitiate work in computer science, I was studying secure software engineering, which led me down a rabbit-hole into the world of secure electronic voting, which led me down deeper into the world of voting security in general.  My adviser had the not-unreasonable belief that until I understood how non-electronic elections could be rigged, I had no business studying how electronic ones could be.

Well, the 2016 election is now over, and along with it any hope I ever had that my time in the voting trenches amounted to anything.  Why do I say this?

In the aftermath of the 2000 debacle there was an enormous push to shift to electronic voting machines (what the industry calls “Direct Recording, Electronic”, or “DRE”).  The Help America Vote Act of 2002 threw vast amounts of money at states in order to help them modernize their voting infrastructure.  Most states spent this money on DRE machines which suffered the fate of all technology: within a few years they were obsolete, within a few more unusable, and by this 2016 election few remained in service.  Billions of dollars were utterly wasted on this fool’s errand, and hardly anyone seems to care.

We’ve also entered a hyperpartisan period where vast numbers of our fellow citizens seem to believe their votes are either being systematically suppressed, or large numbers of ineligible people voted.  This is not news: the voting-security community was forecasting it as far back as 2006.  What horrifies me is that it doesn’t have to be this way: instead, we’ve chosen for it to be this way.  Voting systems like Punchscan, Scantegrity, Prêt à Voter, and more all allow voters to verify both (a) exactly which citizens voted and (b) that their individual vote was both recorded correctly and counted accurately.  These systems, if implemented, could vastly improve public confidence in elections: when every concerned citizen can independently audit the rolls and verify their individual ballot was recorded and counted correctly, who can take seriously claims of fraud?

We’ve known for coming up on twenty years now that our electoral apparatus needs an intervention.  Our first attempt, the Help America Vote Act, was a dismal failure.  Our current climate is even worse than it was in 2000.  Our Congress is such a cesspit of dysfunction that we cannot rely on it to do anything constructive.

That means it’s up to us.

If you agree that we need better elections, there are a few things you can do:

First, discover there are other, better, voting systems out there.  My favorite is David Chaum’s Scantegrity II, which can be explained to the average voter in thirty seconds flat.  If you’re interested in the mathematical underpinnings of Scantegrity II, those papers are also readily available.  And while you’re looking into new forms of balloting, look into new forms of voting, such as Single Transferrable Vote, Instant Runoff, Approval, and more.

Second, before you start advocating alternate schemes, familiarize yourself with the consequences of change.  In a little bit Ken’s going to make an argument that our electoral system — the way in which we select our leaders — is an artifact of the 17th century.  He’s mostly right!  But what many advocates of change overlook is that the mechanisms we use to elect our politicians inevitably affect which politicians get elected and how our political discourse evolves. Compare, for instance, the United Kingdom’s House of Commons to the United States’ House of Representatives.  The presence of small parties means governments are coalitional rather than strictly party-based, and coalitions are surprisingly easy to fracture.  This has massive consequences for the course of a nation.  None of this means we shouldn’t do it, but if you start proposing changes without doing your homework as to the consequences that will follow from them, it’s easy for the established power structure to write you off as a dilettante.

Third, get involved!  If you want your local election commissioner to change the way elections are held, start with a clearly-worded petition.  It doesn’t have to be complicated: just three sentences will do.  “We represent voters in this precinct.  We want you to investigate end-to-end voter-verified voting systems and choose an appropriate one for the upcoming election.  We further want you to report on the likely consequences to our political system of shifting to Single Transferrable Voting.”  If you can get a hundred people to join this petition (make sure to get their addresses), then you’re in business.  Call the local newspaper and tell them you’ll be delivering this petition to the election commissioner’s office.  Once the election commissioner has a petition from a hundred citizens and a journalist asking questions, the commissioner will have no choice but to give your petition a frank answer.

We can change our broken system, we really, genuinely, can.

Will we?