The Enemy Within

On the eve of the midterm elections, one of the greatest threats to the democratic process was thought to be interference from Russia. Last July’s indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller of a dozen Russian intelligence agents for electoral hacking made it clear that this wasn’t just bogeyman-thinking. The findings showed that they had stolen information on some 500,000 voters in 2016. There were indications of various other penetrations by foreign hackers as well.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it identified an increasing number of attempted cyber attacks on U.S. election infrastructure ahead of the November elections, and was working to neutralize them.

In the event, the bigger threat in November 2018 was not from outside but from inside. The dysfunctional voting infrastructure and suspicious irregularities within the U.S. itself posed the greatest danger.

To be sure, the picture was not all black-and-white. Some innovations, like early voting, worked well, allowing millions of people across the country an expanded window of opportunity in which to exercise their rights. In Michigan and Maryland, same-day registration was approved; and in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah, measures were taken to implement what many believe were fairer systems of legislative districting.

But the nation that has led all others in science and technology seemed technologically challenged and distressingly incapable of meeting the basic requirements of modern democracy in the 2018 midterms.

For example, in downtown Atlanta, voters were forced to stand in line for more than three hours because only three voting machines had been set up to accommodate over 3,000 people.

In Texas and South Carolina, voters reported that the machines were flipping their selections; in Maryland, two precincts ran out of paper ballots; in North Carolina, some machines reportedly broke down because of the humidity. In Detroit and New York City, malfunctioning machines caused many voters to give up and go home. People standing on line for hours at the Brooklyn Public Library were told the last ballot scanner had conked out indefinitely.

Sheer human incompetence or deliberate negligence was clearly a culprit in some of these cases; in others, the machines failed.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy think tank, it doesn’t take an advanced degree in computer science to know where to look for an answer. As the center noted: “This year, 41 states will be using systems that are at least a decade old, and officials in 33 say they must replace their machines by 2020.” In 43 states, the voting machines are so old that they don’t even make that model anymore.

These machines don’t improve with age. The more outmoded, the harder it is to obtain replacement parts and find technicians to repair them. Several election officials told the Brennan Center they scavenge for spare parts on eBay, and even there, many are no longer available.

Of course, there is an interface between the human and the machine. It was not news to election officials that their machines were old and were sorely in need of upgrading or replacement. In Texas, a bug in a machine called the Hart InterCivic eSlate was well-known; but a decision was made not to bother fixing it before the midterms, according to Charles Stewart III, a professor of political science at MIT and a member of the MIT Voting Project. It’s not the fault of the technology if the humans in charge are out to lunch.

Florida is a story unto itself, which will take some unraveling. The paper punch-card ballots infamous for creating the “hanging chads” of the 2000 presidential election had been phased out, shredded into the dustbin of history. But Florida proved it doesn’t need chads, hanging or otherwise, to necessitate a recount, as Republicans and Democrats trade accusations of election stealing in the old-fashioned style.

Was the rate of malfunction worse than in other elections? All the data isn’t in yet, and so it’s too soon to make a scientific comparison between 2018 and other years. But the “anecdotal” evidence — that is, what people saw with their own eyes, but which hasn’t been quantified yet — is disturbing. And even if it turns out that the voting technology performed no worse than in the past, it’s still pretty bad and plenty of reason to fix it before 2020.

Currently, the Senate is considering the Secure Elections Act, which mandates that states maintain a paper record to pair with any electronic one to verify the accuracy of results. That’s a reasonable safety mechanism, and should be enacted.

Improvements to the system will cost money. Congress recently allocated $380 million to improve election cybersecurity. A lot more is needed to fix the fixable software and buy new machines where necessary.

Just because it looks like the Russians didn’t try to mess with the 2018 midterms, doesn’t mean they won’t try in 2020. The country has to be vigilant against foreign meddling. But it can’t ignore the domestic threat of voting machines dying of old age, either.