Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

“What these people don’t realize,” he told me, “is that automated tabulating machines were invented for a reason”-that is, because paper is a fundamentally bad way of making and keeping accurate records. Paper is bulky and heavy. It can be hard to read something recorded on paper, no matter whether the marks were made by hand with pen-and-ink or by a computerized printer. Paper rips and gets jammed in machines. Paper dust gets everywhere. Eliminating paper, Selker explained to me, has the potential for dramatically improving elections.

“But what about all of the ways that you can hack the voting machines?” I asked him.

Selker laughed. Politicians, he told me, have been hacking elections in America for more than 200 years. The geeks are focusing on the abilities of hackers to steal elections by reprogramming DREs because electronic attacks are what these folks understand. But if your goal is truly better elections, he says, the DREs can do more good than harm.

One of the most effective ways to affect an election’s outcome is to take your opponent’s supporters off the election roles. That’s what happened in Florida three years ago: thousands of Democrats, many of them minorities, showed up at voting places and discovered that they were no longer registered. Why? Because it’s illegal for convicted felons to vote unless that right is specifically restored. Florida had recently purged the voting roles against a computerized database of convicted felons; tens of thousands of people were removed, some apparently in error. Other techniques for stealing an election, Selker told me, are stationing tow trucks outside the polls to intimidate voters; setting up police roadblocks (as was done in Florida in 2000); intentionally designing confusing ballots; putting people on the ballot with the same name as your opponent; and getting votes the old fashioned way-by buying them. “And don’t get me started on absentee ballots,” he said.

Selker has been studying the electoral process for years, and he has come to a disturbing conclusion: The more he looks, the more problems he finds. A few years ago, for instance, he stationed himself at a Chicago polling place on election day. He discovered that the election workers had not been adequately informed as to how ballots should be properly marked for an important question; the ballots that were filled out incorrectly had to be disqualified. Those were paper ballots, Selker was quick to point out. Hacking aside, election officials are supposed to be able to audit the programming of a voting machine. What they can’t do is make sure that every election-day volunteer is giving out correct instructions for filling in a paper ballot.

What about the value of a paper trail? I asked Selker. Just having a vote on paper is no guarantee that it will be correctly counted, he explained. He cited an example (again from Chicago) of an election commissioner who bragged about counting votes for a Republican candidate and then writing them down as votes for the Democrat.

All of this suddenly matters a great deal. Over the next year, counties all over the United States will be throwing out their old mechanical voting machines and buying new voting systems. The money for this project-roughly $3.9 billion-is coming from the U.S. Congress through the Help America Vote Act. The two big contenders are the DRE machines and a paper-based system that counts votes with optical scanners.

Ironically, many of the proposals that have been made to “improve” the security of DRE systems actually make it easier for politicians to sabotage an election via other means. For example, any technique that gives a voter a printed receipt is susceptible to a vote-selling scam: Just turn in the receipt, and collect your $20. Even receipts that would be visually inspected by the voter and  dropped into a sealed box-a proposal made by Stanford professor David Dill-are vulnerable to a vote-selling technique known as “chain voting.”

0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Tagged: Computing

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me