CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — It’s over. The voting went smoothly. As of the time of writing, there are no serious fraud allegations, nor credible evidence that anyone hacked the voting rolls or voting machines. And most important, the results are not in doubt.
While we may breathe a collective sigh of relief about that, we can’t ignore the issue until the next election. The risks remain.
As computer security experts have been saying for years, our newly computerized voting systems are vulnerable to attack by both individual hackers and government-sponsored cyberwarriors. It is only a matter of time before such an attack happens.
Electronic voting machines can be hacked, and those machines that do not include a paper ballot that can verify each voter’s choice can be hacked undetectably. Voting rolls are also vulnerable; they are all computerized databases whose entries can be deleted or changed to sow chaos on Election Day.
The largely ad hoc system in states for collecting and tabulating individual voting results is vulnerable as well. While the difference between theoretical if demonstrable vulnerabilities and an actual attack on Election Day is considerable, we got lucky this year. Not just presidential elections are at risk, but state and local elections, too.
To be very clear, this is not about voter fraud. The risks of ineligible people voting, or people voting twice, have been repeatedly shown to be virtually nonexistent, and “solutions” to this problem are largely voter-suppression measures. Election fraud, however, is both far more feasible and much more worrisome.
Here’s my worry. On the day after an election, someone claims that a result was hacked. Maybe one of the candidates points to a wide discrepancy between the most recent polls and the actual results. Maybe an anonymous person announces that he hacked a particular brand of voting machine, describing in detail how. Or maybe it’s a system failure during Election Day: voting machines recording significantly fewer votes than there were voters, or zero votes for one candidate or another. (These are not theoretical occurrences; they have both happened in the United States before, though because of error, not malice.)
We have no procedures for how to proceed if any of these things happen. There’s no manual, no national panel of experts, no regulatory body to steer us through this crisis. How do we figure out if someone hacked the vote? Can we recover the true votes, or are they lost? What do we do then?
We need national security standards for voting machines, and funding for states to procure machines that comply with those standards. Voting-security experts can deal with the technical details, but such machines must include a paper ballot that provides a record verifiable by voters. The simplest and most reliable way to do that is already practiced in 37 states: optical-scan paper ballots, marked by the voters, counted by computer but recountable by hand. And we need a system of pre-election and postelection security audits to increase confidence in the system.
Second, election tampering, either by a foreign power or by a domestic actor, is inevitable, so we need detailed procedures to follow — both technical procedures to figure out what happened, and legal procedures to figure out what to do — that will efficiently get us to a fair and equitable election resolution. There should be a board of independent computer-security experts to unravel what happened, and a board of independent election officials, either at the Federal Election Commission or elsewhere, empowered to determine and put in place an appropriate response.
In the absence of such impartial measures, people rush to defend their candidate and their party. Florida in 2000 was a perfect example. What could have been a purely technical issue of determining the intent of every voter became a battle for who would win the presidency. The debates about hanging chads and spoiled ballots and how broad the recount should be were contested by people angling for a particular outcome. In the same way, after a hacked election, partisan politics will place tremendous pressure on officials to make decisions that override fairness and accuracy.
That is why we need to agree on policies to deal with future election fraud. We need procedures to evaluate claims of voting-machine hacking. We need a fair and robust vote-auditing process. And we need all of this in place before an election is hacked and battle lines are drawn.
In response to Florida, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 required each state to publish its own guidelines on what constitutes a vote. Some states — Indiana, in particular — set up a “war room” of public and private cybersecurity experts ready to help if anything did occur. While the Department of Homeland Security is assisting some states with election security, and the F.B.I. and the Justice Department made some preparations this year, the approach is too piecemeal.
Elections serve two purposes. First, and most obvious, they are how we choose a winner. But second, and equally important, they convince the loser — and all the supporters — that he or she lost. To achieve the first purpose, the voting system must be fair and accurate. To achieve the second one, it must be shown to be fair and accurate.
We need to have these conversations before something happens, when everyone can be calm and rational about the issues. The integrity of our elections is at stake, which means our democracy is at stake.