We’ve heard a lot in recent weeks about the potential for Russian meddling in the presidential election. A lot of circumstantial evidence – and the fact that Russia has the means, motive and opportunity to conduct these attacks – suggests an important Russian role in the leaks of confidential emails from the Democratic National Committee, the release of opposition research on Donald Trump compiled by the DNC and personal contact details of many prominent Democrats. And just this week, news broke that the FBI has found evidence of foreign penetrations of voter registration databases in Arizona and Illinois and warned officials in every state to improve the cybersecurity of election-related systems. We also know that most citizens will cast their ballots on electronic voting machines; in 43 states those machines are more than a decade old. These are the computers that were introduced immediately after the Bush-Gore election in 2000, to correct the problems with balloting that had cast doubt on the actual choices of many Florida voters. Over the last decade or so, it has been conclusively demonstrated that at least some models of electronic voting machines are vulnerable to hacking by people with the skills of graduate students in computer science. No one knows how secure the other machines are, because many vendors have asserted their intellectual property rights to prevent the security of their machines from being examined by independent parties.
If hacked, an electronic voting machine cannot be trusted to count votes accurately. In an election conducted with paper ballots, the ballots themselves can be recounted. But with many electronic voting machines, there is no record of the votes cast, other than the digital information contained in the machine itself. The idea of recounting electronically cast votes is, therefore, meaningless.
These separate concerns – that machines can be hacked to alter voting records, leaving no way to verify or recount and that Russia has the motive, means and opportunity to meddle in the November election – combine to raise a warning that Russian hackers might be able to tilt the election to a candidate who would act favorably toward Russian interests. I myself have suggested this possibility. But the much more likely threat to democracy is sore losers who cast doubt on the integrity of the voting process.
The political stability of the United States over the past 240 years is due in large part to the willingness of election losers to concede victory to election winners. To be sure, close elections, like Bush-Gore in 2000, have resulted in disputes about who actually won. But in the end, courts and legislators have found ways to declare victors – and the losers have accepted those declarations even if they have disagreed with them. The same cannot be said of elections held in many other nations, which have seen election losers call for revolutions in the streets and violent force to challenge unfavorable election outcomes.