Accuracy Over Efficiency

As the Washington Post reported today, “People connected to the Russian government tried to hack election-related computer systems in 21 states, a Department of Homeland Security official testified Wednesday.”

According to the official, Samuel Liles, vote tallying mechanisms were unaffected. The hacking appeared to be probes searching for security vulnerabilities. So far, it doesn’t appear that the Russians, or anyone else, has successfully hacked systems to alter the outcome of an election, but it’s reports like today’s, and many others, that make it clear that it is only a matter of time before such an attack is successful. Something that often gets overlooked in the Information Age is that any data stored in a computer connected to the internet or infected with malware is vulnerable. There is no such thing as total information security. The Information Age has ushered in a new economy and made data available from points all over the globe, but that data, by its very accessibility, can never be considered completely secure. That’s why, instead of looking forward when it comes to our elections, we should be looking back.

I wrote about something similar back in 2008. In the runup to the election that year, there were concerns that new electronic voting machines being introduced in many states were unreliable. Users reported problems such as undercounting and vote switching, which are serious problems when tallying votes. I was dumbfounded that we could get voting machines so wrong when our economy has relied on accurate accounting since our days as colonies. For 150 years stores and businesses across the nation have also been using cash registers and adding machines with no problem. I gave an example of how the 50-year old cash register at a bar I worked on typical Saturday nights could have $10,000 worth of transactions run through it during a shift, and the greatest potential for error was when I handed a customer their change.

Our voting data, as indicated in the Post’s reporting, is in danger. And it is in danger because we are relying on networked computers to do the work of tallying votes. The situation is serious enough that it could call into question the results of future elections. That has the potential to be catastrophic for our republic.

No reputable report has surfaced that hackers fiddled with vote tallies in the 2016 elections, but imagine the chaos if they had. Had evidence surfaced before the electors cast their ballots in the state capitals, what sort of mad scramble would there be in the courts? What sort of constitutional crisis would we find ourselves in? What sort of response would Donald Trump have if it could be proven that a hostile foreign power didn’t just interfere with the election, but installed him in the Oval Office? Unless we segregate America’s voting systems from the internet, we might be faced with scenarios like these in the future.

The solution is counterintuitive. When it comes to technology, we are not a people that likes looking backwards. The term Luddite has become synonymous with ignorance or fear of change. While the digital revolution has changed how we conduct our very daily lives, its innovations and its efficiencies are replacing older technology at a rate faster than its reliability. That is, digital technology performs most of the same tasks as analog technology better, but not as reliably. Cell phones drop calls at an astronomic rate compared to land lines. Digital over-the-air television broadcasts are crystal clear, but the tiniest bit of interference sends the signal quality off a cliff, rendering the picture unwatchable. Etc.

It’s easy to forget that we are still in the early days of the Information Age. We’re still figuring all of this out. For that reason, we should rely on proven technology for something as important as elections. We should go back to analog technology, using mechanical voting machines that work on the same principles as that machine on which I used to ring up drinks. At the end of the night, I had a record of every individual sale and a closing total.

Our vote tallies cannot be exposed to Russian hackers or anyone else with the skills to wreak havoc. The best way to do that is to remove the possibility of hacking completely. If it takes longer to count votes on election night, so what? I would much rather go to bed uncertain who won because the votes were still being counted, rather than because I’m not sure if the computers doing the counting have been attacked.