Even if not a single voting machine has been compromised, we’re in trouble.
As the 2018 midterm election nears, an ominous question looms: Will this election be hacked?
The answer is: Yes, it has already been hacked.
This election has already been hacked even if not a single voting machine has been compromised. It has already been hacked even if not another ruble has been spent on spreading disinformation. It has already been hacked even if voter registration information has been undisturbed and no vote tallies are altered.
Why? Because the legitimacy of an election depends on the electorate accepting that it was fair, that everyone who tried to vote got to vote and that every vote counted. Lose that, and your voting system might as well have suffered a devastating technological attack.
Unfortunately, in much of the United States, we are no longer able to assure people that none of those things has happened. A recent poll shows that 46 percent of the American electorate do not think their votes will be counted fairly, and about a third think it is likely that a foreign country will tamper with the results.
That loss of trust has itself become a form of voter discouragement. Why vote, when you feel it may not matter? Why register, when you fear you may be tossed off the rolls?
Creating or allowing the loss of trust in democratic institutions is a great facilitator of authoritarianism. It works though a vicious cycle: The more that you can convince people that democratic institutions aren’t working, the less that people will fight to protect and improve them — and the less that people fight to protect and improve democratic institutions, the worse they will perform.
The actual problems in the electoral infrastructure are considerable. For example, just three companies produce all the voting machines. Such centralization would be dangerous even if the machines weren’t so vulnerable — which, unfortunately, they are.
But apart from such clearly urgent concerns, there is a bewildering array of concerns of a less valid nature, ranging from the uncertain to the dubious to the exaggerated to the outright baseless. On social media, I regularly come across all of these. I can’t blame people even for the baseless concerns. As someone who has studied electoral infrastructure for years, I, too, sometimes struggle to differentiate the grounded worries from the ungrounded ones.
Yes, Georgia is running its election on old Windows 2000 machines (so old that Microsoft no longer supports the operating system for security updates), with no means of voter verification, audits or recounts. No, people in Georgia whose names aren’t exact matches between voter rolls and other forms of identification will not be blocked from voting in this election — thanks to a federal judge who ruled on Friday that the state’s “exact match” rules for registration won’t apply for this election. But yes, they could be removed from the voter rolls for the next election. And so on.
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If experts have to scramble to stay abreast of the latest news, how are most voters supposed to know what’s what?
We have done something even worse than letting our electoral infrastructure crumble, something even worse than allowing the instruments of the voting process (voter registration data, polling places) to become political weapons. We have gotten ourselves into a place where the mechanisms of accountability and transparency that are the bedrock of any sensible election process no longer operate in many parts of the country.
This has all the makings of a political crisis. It needs to be stopped now, before the vicious cycle spins beyond our control.
Stopping it will require embracing every democratic institution that is failing to some degree (electoral infrastructure, media, local government) and trying to fix it. That means fighting cynicism — standing up for important institutions even as they are letting us down.
It also means voting, even in an imperfect system. Voting remains the key tool of legitimacy for any government. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t be so much under attack. Even dictatorships hold mock votes, because “we won the election” remains the strongest argument for legitimacy of rule. Voting is so powerful that even a hollowed-out version holds sway.
But overhauling the electoral infrastructure has to be a priority. The voting process should be overseen by nonpartisan officials or monitored through an adversarial process (with input from representatives of all parties). Recently, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a comprehensive study, “Securing the Vote,” which offers extensive practical recommendations. Luckily, fewer and fewer electronic voting machines remain in use around the country; they should be replaced with optical-scan ballots. Meaningful audit processes should be instituted nationwide. States need federal money to upgrade their voting machines, train their poll workers and secure and upgrade their pollbooks (which maintain voter identification information).
Paradoxically, the crumbling, mismatched and patchwork nature of our electoral infrastructure makes it unlikely that we will see large-scale computerized hacking that alters the political landscape. The failure to vote because of cynicism and mistrust is the bigger threat to the integrity of our elections.
To fix that, we need to elect politicians whose platforms include the need for demonstrably fair elections. And that requires voting — warts, failings and everything else aside. Sometimes, working with what you have, rather than surrendering to cynicism, is the only strategy.