Wheel Debates: Should the United States Rely on Electronic Voting?

The Wheel Debates are written by members of the Barkley Forum. The views argued below do not necessarily reflect each debater’s personal opinions.

The Future of Voting Belongs to Technology

By Michael Cerny

One of the earliest depictions of voting portrays the selection of Odysseus to receive the great warrior Achilles’s armor. Voters placed pebbles into urns, inspiring the modern term psephology, or the scientific study of elections, borrowing the Greek root for pebble: psephos.  Much like contemporary democratic nations, the ancient Greeks were concerned with the transparency, accountability and accuracy of their elections. Voting procedures have progressed significantly since the ancient Greeks with the advent of electronic voting machines, but criticism of such technology over concerns surrounding efficacy and security overlook the important benefits evolution in voting technology provide.

The fraught history of voting technology in the 19th and 20th centuries illustrates the risks and rewards of new electoral technology, including electronic voting machines. Thomas Edison introduced the voting machine to the United States in 1869, and similar technology was later patented by the Shoup Voting Machine Corporation and Automatic Voting Machine Corporation in the late 19th century. Although variants of these machines operated in some precincts throughout the 20th century, mechanical failures caused by their complicated systems of levers and gears thwarted the goal of electoral accountability. However, the implementation of paper-ballot punch cards in the 1960s yielded similar problems for electoral accountability, as illustrated by the controversial Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore in 2000. The ruling decided the 2000 presidential election, as it ended a recount of erroneously punched paper ballots, including the infamous “hanging chads,” or incompletely punched ballots. The shift to electronic voting has eliminated the errors associated with paper ballots by eliminating “chads” altogether, in addition to mitigating opportunities for physical ballot tampering. Furthermore, the digital record-keeping by electronic voting machines allows election officials to quickly audit the integrity of a vote, thereby increasing an election’s integrity.

Electronic voting machines enhance the accountability of elections. This argument is not undermined by sensationalist claims of election hacking by news media. Although concerns over the machines’ security are legitimate, they’ve been dramatically overstated. In the case of the 2016 presidential election, there is sparse evidence that Russia “hacked” a single vote by use of these machines. All voting machines are air-gapped, meaning they are disconnected from the internet, thereby shielding them from cyberattacks. Furthermore, even if a hostile actor loaded malware onto these machines via USB, the virus would have to circumvent a variety of tests assessing the logic and accuracy of ballot tabulations. Reading beyond the sensationalist headlines of Russian “hacking,” the real and legitimate threat to elections is entirely unrelated to the use of electronic voting machines; the spread of misinformation and discord across American social media networks is of far greater concern.

While well-substantiated claims of Russian-sponsored leaks and Russian-controlled accounts on social media raise questions about cybersecurity in the United States, brazen and widespread election fraud on electronic voting machines has never occurred in our nation’s history. These exaggerated concerns should not spur an exodus to the historically problematic paper ballot. Electronic voting machines represent yet another iteration in the gradual evolution of voting procedure, and these machines’ security can only be expected to increase with the advent of new and improved technology. If society is to abandon each voting innovation over its inevitable faults, whether they be complicated gears or computer security, we may as well regress to simply plopping pebbles in urns like our democratic ancestors, the ancient Greeks.

Michael Cerny (21C) is from Highland Park, Texas.

Paper Ballots Necessary to Prevent Hacking

By Anthony Wong

Elections are the foundation of American democracy, and because of that, protecting the vote must be a priority of every administration. While elections allow people to voice concerns, choose leaders and shape public policy, electronic voting machines threaten this essential foundation by creating new risks to elections’ integrity; the only way to secure such an essential part of democratic institutions is via paper ballots.

Electronic voting machines are subject to myriad problems that threaten our electoral system. Most machines have unfriendly user interfaces that make the voting process cumbersome, glitchy and unreliable, meaning claims about its improved efficiency are exaggerated. Even if there is greater ease in counting votes, the risks presented by electronic voting far outweigh the marginal benefits that come with vote tallying.

Specifically, the Government Accountability Office has stated that “electronic voting systems provided weak system security control over key components” such as the programming of voting machines offsite by private contractors and the unreliable electronic storage of vote counts. These indiscretions allow anyone seeking to harm our democracy the chance to alter votes electronically or to calibrate the machines to miscount votes. The United States cannot risk giving hostile powers or interest groups this opportunity.

These security concerns are not overblown. In 2016, Virginia’s election board determined that if its electronic voting systems were hacked, it would have no way of knowing. Currently there are 20 states which do not have paper backups to their electronic voting machines. In some cases, even if there are paper ballots, an electronic component of the machine would be responsible for counting ballots, still leaving the electoral exposed to attacks. And even if these vulnerabilities aren’t exploited, the mere doubt of electoral security damages the legitimacy of an election’s outcome.

The risks of an insecure voting process expand beyond elections themselves: nefarious political agents could compromise voter’s privacy, subjecting them to unwarranted political harassment. A poll worker could link voting records to specific voters, tracking their voting history and, in a worst case scenario, voters would forfeit the secrecy of their ballot if they asked a poll worker for help in resolving a technical glitch. This fear of public scrutiny would unjustly stifle free elections if voters felt judged each time they cast a ballot. Furthermore, current fears about Russia’s influence and the recent election debacle in Georgia demonstrate the pressing need to address the dangers of electronic voting machines. As a result, only elections that use paper ballots provide adequate assurances of security.

Some supporters of electronic voting may argue that paper ballots are too inefficient or may point to the 2000 election as an instance of paper ballots’ limitations. While these are legitimate concerns, paper ballots offer a tremendous advantage: they cannot be hacked. New ballots can be manufactured so that chads (paper punched from a ballot) fall off cleanly and poll workers can more clearly explain to voters how to enter their selections. These ballots do not need to be “pre-programmed” offsite and any signs of tampering would immediately become obvious upon inspection.

While it is important to constantly improve upon the voting process, electronic voting machines in their present form are not the answer. It is never worth moving to new voting technology if it means sacrificing the integrity of our democratic process. In a historical moment that has made clear the extant threats to our democracy, it’s better to have people plop pebbles into an urn than risk electronic tampering with elections.

Anthony Wong (21C) is from Lexington, Mass.