More than hacking haunts midterm voting
Four weeks from Election Day, it’s hard to be confident that every eligible American who wants to vote will be able to do so, and that every vote will be recorded accurately. Along with possible foreign interference and hacking, other problems — some the fault of federal and state inaction — loom over this crucial election. Among the most serious: Aging equipment. Thirteen states still use voting machines without a paper trail in some or all counties, leaving no reliable way to audit votes after an election. Five states — Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey and South Carolina — use these outdated machines in every county, although election experts have been warning for years about their inadequacies. Inaccurate books. Electronic poll books have largely replaced old handwritten registration books that election officials use at polling places to check in voters and keep track of who has voted. This progress has a downside. On Election Day 2016 in Durham, North Carolina, for instance, scores of voters were turned away from polling places or incorrectly told they had already voted because of inaccuracies in the books. In some precincts, voting was halted for so long that some voters gave up. Vulnerabilities and malfunctions. State officials insist that actual vote totals cannot be tampered with because voting machines are not connected to the internet, which means that hackers would need to get into individual machines to do any damage. True. But vote tallies are sometimes sent to central locations through telephone modems that use the same digital infrastructure as the internet, making them vulnerable, too. And even without hacking, voting machine malfunctions occur. In Nevada’s primary in June, 300 machine malfunctions were reported across the state, including some candidates being left off ballots. Human error. In Arizona’s primary in August, contractors in one county failed to set up electronic poll books in 62 locations until hours after the polls opened. Some people who couldn’t wait did not get to vote. With so little time before the midterms on Nov. 6, it’s too late for major overhauls. Nonetheless, a lot can be done, some of it low-tech, to try to help ensure a stable election. The Brennan Center for Justice, at New York University School of Law, recommends limiting or eliminating wireless connections for digital poll books, keeping paper backups of poll books, and supplying enough provisional ballots to accommodate voters without delay if problems arise. As Russia and perhaps other foreign governments seek to undermine democratic elections, Congress and states need to get serious about defenses. Replacing outdated equipment might cost a lot of money, but no price is too high to protect the crown jewel of American democracy — the right to vote in free and fair elections.