New bill could finally get rid of paperless voting machines
A bipartisan group of six senators has introduced legislation that would take a huge step toward securing elections in the United States. Called the Secure Elections Act, the bill aims to eliminate insecure paperless voting machines from American elections while promoting routine audits that would dramatically reduce the danger of interference from foreign governments.
The legislation comes on the heels of the contentious 2016 election. Post-election investigation hasn't turned up any evidence that foreign governments actually altered any votes. However, we do know that Russians were probing American voting systems ahead of the 2016 election, laying groundwork for what could have become a direct attack on American democracy.
"With the 2018 elections just around the corner, Russia will be back to interfere again," said co-sponsor Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).
So a group of senators led by James Lankford (R-Okla.) wants to shore up the security of American voting systems ahead of the 2018 and 2020 elections. And the senators have focused on two major changes that have broad support from voting security experts.
The first objective is to get rid of paperless electronic voting machines. Computer scientists have been warning for more than a decade that these machines are vulnerable to hacking and can't be meaningfully audited. States have begun moving away from paperless systems, but budget constraints have forced some to continue relying on insecure paperless equipment. The Secure Elections Act would give states grants specifically earmarked for replacing these systems with more secure systems that use voter-verified paper ballots.
The legislation's second big idea is to encourage states to perform routine post-election audits based on modern statistical techniques. Many states today only conduct recounts in the event of very close election outcomes. And these recounts involve counting a fixed percentage of ballots. That often leads to either counting way too many ballots (wasting taxpayer money) or too few (failing to fully verify the election outcome).
The Lankford bill would encourage states to adopt more statistically sophisticated procedures to count as many ballots as needed to verify an election result was correct—and no more.
We talked to two election security experts who praised the legislation and urged Congress to pass it quickly.
"We're rapidly running out of time," says Lawrence Norden, an election expert at the Brennan Center at New York University Law School. Given the long lead times involved in planning for a major election, he told us, Congress will have to move quickly if it wants new recommendations to be ready before the 2018 election—or new voting systems to be in place by November 2020.
The bill would drive a stake through the heart of paperless voting
America's approach to elections has changed dramatically since 2000, when butterfly ballots and hanging chads threw a presidential election into chaos. In 2002, Congress appropriated billions of dollars to help states replace outdated voting systems.
Unfortunately, much of this money was used to buy paperless touchscreen voting machines. These seemed like the wave of the future, but computer security experts found them to be seriously inadequate.
"Computer scientists were worried about them from the start," according to Alex Halderman, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan. They worried "that they were being rolled out too fast and without effective security standards."
"In every single case, when a machine was brought into the lab and studied by qualified researchers, the result was the discovery of significantvulnerabilities that could allow the machines to be compromised with malicious software that could potentially steal votes," Halderman told Ars.
So Halderman says that, over the last decade, "the thinking has shifted to looking at more practical solutions." In particular, election security experts have come to regard optical-scanned paper ballots as the gold standard for computer security.
Optical-scan ballots can be counted by machine to provide prompt and accurate vote totals. But if there's any doubt about the integrity of the results, there's always an option to do a hand recount of the paper ballots.
The Lankford bill would enshrine this thinking into federal law. "Funds received under a grant under this section may not be used for any voting system that records each vote in electronic storage unless the system is an optical scanner that reads paper ballots," the bill says.
That approach makes sense to Norden, too. "The paperless systems are probably the least secure systems and also among the oldest systems in the country," he told Ars.
The legislation sets up a nationwide process to identify these machines and phase them out. States wanting money would need to submit a list of current machines that don't use paper ballots and a plan for replacing those machines. The states would then get grant money that could only be used for replacing those machines.
Mindful of state prerogatives over election administration, the bill doesn't go as far as banning the use of paperless machines. States would be free to continue using them if they wanted to. But the legislation would give state election administrators a powerful shove toward better voting systems—and it's likely that many states would take the hint and the money.
Post-election audits would become routine and statistically rigorous
The problem with the way many states currently handle post-election audits is illustrated by last fall's controversy over recounts in the key swing states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Liberal activists and some election security experts wanted recounts to make sure that the close and surprising results in those states were legitimate. But the move angered Republicans who felt that the recount drive was simply an effort to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election result.
At the same time, the statewide recounts were expensive. Green Party presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein raised $3.5 million to fund a statewide recount in Wisconsin that turned up no signs of irregularities. Counting every ballot in the state was probably overkill given that Trump won with a small but comfortable margin of 20,000 votes.
Halderman argues that a better approach would be to make a post-vote audit a routine step in the election process. When every election is followed by an audit, it removes the potential stigma and controversy that came with the 2016 recounts.
Some states already do post-election audits, but even here Halderman argues there's room for improvements. States can maximize the effectiveness of these audits and minimize costs by varying the size of each recount based on the victory margin.
"When the public policy space was less sophisticated about statistics, lawmakers picked a fraction of precincts or auditing units to examine—one percent or something like that," Halderman told Ars. "But, over the past decade, the statistical science about election auditing has really blossomed."
"You want to treat the process of auditing an election as a process of gathering evidence that the election result was right," Halderman says. "You start examining ballots and you stop after you've gathered enough evidence to convince yourself at a defined level of certainty."
"An audit isn't necessarily a recount if an election result is not particularly close," Halderman says. "You don't have to look at that many ballots in order to audit it to high confidence. But if an election result turns on one vote, obviously you do need to look at every ballot to know that for sure."
Obviously, this is more expensive than having no post-election checks. But it could be a lot less expensive than a rule that requires auditing a fixed fraction of all ballots after every election.
More important, the statistical rigor of these recounts would provide a powerful deterrent to anyone thinking about tampering with American elections, since the probability of tampering going undetected would be very low.
Rather than mandating a specific auditing procedure, the bill creates an advisory committee that would be heavily staffed by election security experts. These experts would be tasked with developing a set of standards for robust election auditing. States could then apply for money to implement improvements to their election procedures that are consistent with these expert recommendations.
One concern about a process for variable-size recounts is that it can make the costs of conducting an election unpredictable. If an election is particularly close, it can require counting all of the ballots to have a high confidence that the result was correct. And that could create a financial crunch for election officials with fixed budgets.
To address that concern, the Lankford bill creates an insurance pool to reimburse states when close elections force them to do wide-ranging recounts.
“I think it’s very positive”
The Lankford bill has other important provisions, too. It would take several steps to encourage more information sharing between state and federal officials about suspected attacks. The bill would require voting equipment vendors to promptly notify the relevant authorities about cybersecurity incidents. It would help state election officials to get security clearances so they can receive classified briefings from intelligence agencies.
But Lawrence Norden, the elections expert from New York University, argues that the most important thing about the bill is who's sponsoring it. The bill has three Republican co-sponsors and three Democrats, giving it bipartisan appeal. And as the press release for the legislation notes, co-sponsors Lankford and Harris are the "only members of the Senate who serve on both the Homeland Security Committee and Intelligence Committee"—which Norden says is important for a bill that's related to national security.
"In terms of what the bill does, I think it's very positive," Norden told Ars. "It checks off the boxes for what needs to be done."
But Norden stressed that it's important for Congress to move quickly if it wants to have an impact on the 2018 election—or even give election officials time to fully prepare for the 2020 election.
The legislation establishes an expert panel and gives it 180 days to set guidelines for election security. If those guidelines are going to have any impact on the 2018 election, Congress needs to pass the bill as soon as possible, Norden argues.
Indeed, there's little time to waste even for the 2020 election, according to Norden. The legislation envisions states drawing up plans to replace outdated election systems and institute new voting procedures, then applying for federal funding to implement those plans. Once the federal funding is approved, states will then have to purchase the equipment, set it up, train election officials, and so forth. That could easily take the bulk of the time between now and November 2020.