Make America Safe for Democracy

As you may be aware, the 2020 presidential election is coming. But there are quite a number of election officials around the country who seem not to have noticed.

A study released this week by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law said that an estimated 12 percent of all voters in the 2020 presidential election will be using machines that create electronic tallies with no “paper trail” — no tangible documentation that the voter’s choices registered accurately.

In the event of a contested result, a recount may be of little help. With no slips of paper to verify, it would be like asking the machine to check itself.

For all the talk about Russian interference in the 2016 elections through hacking and online disinformation, the nation’s electoral system remains vulnerable. And the vulnerability is not solely from foreign malefactors, but just as much from domestic ones.

As in the case of Georgia. In July, the state was fending off a lawsuit for intentionally destroying evidence of vote tampering and attempting to cover up failure to heed court directives to switch to a system with a paper trail.

Georgia became the scene of one of the most acrimonious post-election disputes last year when Brian Kemp, a Republican who was the state’s chief election official at the time, defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams. The leading issue was alleged suppression of the minority vote, but the election infrastructure presided over by Kemp was also called into question.

The case came before U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg — the same judge who previously rebuked state officials for inadequately addressing the deficiencies of the system. Totenberg had ruled that Georgia could not be forced to adopt paper ballots before the Kemp-Abrams election, but said there was “a mounting tide of evidence of the inadequacy and security risks” in the state’s system.

Georgia is now in the process of acquiring “ballot-marking” technology, in which the computer generates paper ballots. Experts say it’s not as good as the voter marking the ballot directly, but still better than an all-electronic system with no paper backup.

New Jersey is one of the worst laggards. As of August 3, almost all the state’s counties were still paperless, according to a survey conducted by Politico.

The state is supposed to receive nearly $10 million from the federal government to upgrade its outmoded equipment. But it’s a question whether all will be in place in time for November 2020, and whether it will be enough. The Brennan Center pegs the cost of a full revamp at $40 million to $63 million.

Officialdom hasn’t been totally negligent; there has been some improvement. Whereas in 2016, 14 states relied heavily on paperless voting machines, no more than eight will do so in 2020, according to Brennan Center estimates.

Besides the problem of paperlessness, hacking persists as a threat. At the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), there’s a serious effort to make voting technology impenetrable, or as close to it as possible.

For the past two years, DARPA has been inviting or challenging hackers to attend the DefCon security conference in Las Vegas, where they can try their luck and skill at penetrating the toughest new systems. The hackers haven’t broken through DARPA defenses yet.

The ultimate goal goes beyond voting machines. The agency sees it as a model for developing a secure hardware platform, uniquely designing all the chips that go into the computer from the ground up. It’s an ambitious project that could launch a new era of cybersecurity. DARPA deserves a pat on the back — or on the epaulette.

This is the kind of work needed to make America safe for democracy. It’s time to end this foolishness of the vital machinery of the world’s greatest democracy being an open target for our enemies.

Assuming the technical problems can be solved, the only question is: Can you get government to buy and install such systems once they become available?

An almost inexplicable bipartisan sluggishness grips Washington on anything to do with infrastructure, including infrastructure that citizens use to cast their votes. Legislation to mandate and fund paper-trail voting machines has bogged down. Concerns about excessive federal intervention, a proposed requirement for using recycled paper (even though it could cause flawed computer readings) and so on, continue to befuddle the lawmakers.

State and local governments can’t wait for Washington; they must act with alacrity.

They will not be able to blame the swamp in Washington or the evil hand of Moscow if things go wrong in 2020.