More than hack­ing haunts midterm vot­ing

USA TODAY International Edition - - OPINION -

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.


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