Can Our Ballots Be Both Secret and Secure?

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      A voting system has many parts: voter-registration databases, poll books, ballots, optical scanners, voting machines, tabulators, and lots of rules. In a rational system, national elections would be a uniform process overseen by a federal commission. But a quirk of history—a single line in the Constitution that cedes control to the states—has saddled American democracy with an idiosyncratic, fractured way of voting. There are more than nine thousand election jurisdictions in the country, each with its own way of upholding the franchise. Some require ballots to be printed with the candidates’ names in capital letters, and others mandate that the roster of candidates, no matter how long, appears on a single ballot page. There are jurisdictions that encourage same-day registration and allow any voter to obtain an absentee ballot, whereas others impose extreme voter-identification laws and severely limit polling hours and locations. To a large extent, the procedural differences in the way we vote—state to state, municipality to municipality—are functions of both the distinct culture of each locality and the requirements placed on them by state legislatures and secretaries of state. Those requirements are variable, sometimes onerous, and subject to the vagaries of politics.

      Similarly, there is no uniformity to the way that Americans cast ballots. Some jurisdictions rely on hand-marked paper ballots that are counted manually or recorded by optical scanners, others handle voting with digital devices that mark the ballot for the voter, and still others use machines that do not provide voters with a paper backup of their choices. When machines are involved, they must be configured to adhere to local, state, and federal specifications—which means that there are numerous iterations across the country of the same model machine. But almost all of them have been manufactured by just three for-profit election venders—Hart InterCivic, Dominion Voting Systems, and Election Systems & Software—each owned by a different private-equity company that is under no obligation to the voting public to reveal its directors, profits, supply chains, or the algorithms powering its software. Although some jurisdictions require that companies pay to have their machines tested and certified by labs, not all places mandate this.

      Private companies have long manufactured the equipment that Americans use to vote, but, starting in the nineteen-sixties, the machines have become increasingly computerized. After that transition began, companies were not just making the hardware—they were writing the code that registered and tabulated votes. A jurisdiction could buy or lease the equipment, but the vender owned the software, which was typically arcane and proprietary. In 1988, the investigative reporter Ronnie Dugger, writing in The New Yorker, observed that voting-machine companies “have long contended, in and out of court, that they own the source codes and must keep them secret from everyone, including the local officials who conduct elections.” This remains the case.

      Dugger’s article was largely based on a report issued that same year by the National Bureau of Standards, written by a computer scientist named Roy Saltman. For more than a decade, Saltman had been identifying problems with electronic voting machines that continue to dog elections today: tallies that can’t be audited because the voting machines do not provide a paper trail, software and hardware glitches, security vulnerabilities, poor connections between voting machines and central tabulating computers, conflicts of interest among venders of computerized systems, and election officials who lack computer expertise. He also made an early case for encrypting votes. “If encryption is not used in the teleprocessing of vote data,” he wrote in a 1978 report, “there is a possibility that a sophisticated disrupter could delete correct data or replace correct data with false data,” which would result in the reporting of erroneous results.

      Jesus: Hey, Dad? God: Yes, Son? Jesus: Western civilization followed me home. Can I keep it? God: Certainly not! And put it down this minute--you don't know where it's been! Tom Robbins in Another Roadside Attraction

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