The end is near. All remaining political disputes – recounts, in this case – must be wrapped up by Tuesday, six days before Dec. 19 when the members of the Electoral College meet in their respective states and ratify Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. The last procedural twitches of controversy from the 2016 election, in other words, are drawing to their inevitable close. But the book closing on the 2016 elections is a good time to take stock and consider reforms that this year has made painfully clear the system needs. After all, this election has inarguably highlighted serious vulnerabilities in the political system that need to be remedied because they are not unique to this year. I’ve got three common-sense ideas on that score. The first two reforms we ought to undertake are interrelated and have to do with ensuring the security, and thus the legitimacy, of the vote, whether from error – manmade or mechanical – or malicious attacks.
First – and this may seem backward in the information age – we need a paper trail for all votes cast in this country. Right now we don’t have one. According to Pamela Smith of VerifiedVoting, a nonpartisan group that focuses on ballot transparency and security issues, five states (Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey and South Carolina) only use voting machines that record votes electronically without a verifiable paper record; another 10 states, including Pennsylvania, have those sort of voting machines at least in part. That is to say that they cast their ballot on an electronic machine which is wholly relied upon to spit out the correct total: Votes go in, a set of numbers comes out – is it accurate? You just have to trust the computer. Want to do a recount? There’s nothing to recount; the total is the total. Nationwide, Smith estimates, between 20 and 25 percent of voters cast ballots electronically without an accompanying paper record.
… And that brings me to my second reform: There ought to be a national vote audit on at minimum a quadrennial basis (in other words in the immediate wake of the presidential election). An audit is not a recount. It involves taking an appropriately-sized sample of ballots and checking them to make sure the tallied results bear out. In fact, says Smith of VerifiedVoting, half the country provides for post-election audits and half does not. But the typical state audit doesn’t “usually have a well-defined purpose or guarantee of anything it accomplishes,” says Philip Stark, associate dean mathematical and physical sciences at UC Berkley, who also sits on the board of advisers to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. The problem, says Goodman, is that the existing state audits “don’t check the outcome, which is what we really want to know. They sort of spot-check machine function.” In Wisconsin, for example, if a high error rate is turned up the company which provided the machine is sanctioned – but the outcome of the race is unchanged, says Smith.