From 1991 to 1999, my job as Oregon’s secretary of state gave me responsibility for working with local government officials to protect and ensure the integrity of the state’s election system. It’s of paramount importance in a functioning democracy that votes—as our citizens cast them—are collected and counted fully and accurately. Recent revelations about Russian efforts to affect the 2016 presidential election have unsettled citizens and election officials alike. To date, there’s no credible evidence that actual votes were tampered with or miscounted due to a cyber attack. But there’s growing unease about the potential vulnerability of the nation’s disparate election systems—operated by 50 states and thousands of local governments—to sophisticated hacks that could threaten the integrity of our voting systems. It’s impossible to guarantee with 100% certainty that election fraud won’t be attempted, or actually happen. But the collective goal must be to make such criminal activity—and that’s exactly what it is—exceedingly rare, easily detectable, and of minimal (or no) material consequence. … Mail-based voting systems today are far less risky than many polling place elections, precisely because they distribute ballots (and electoral risk) in such a de-centralized way. To have any semblance of success, an organized fraud effort must involve hundreds—if not thousands—of separate acts. All would be individual felonies, and all must go undetected to have any chance of success.
To be sure, no electoral system—including one based on a vote-at-home approach—can prevent all potential fraud, much less its appearance. Nor should it try to. Electoral systems must balance the need for basic integrity safeguards—to minimize the odds of invalid ballots being counted and affecting an election result—with the importance of maximizing access to the extent practicable for citizens wishing to exercise their democratic franchise.
Nonetheless, it’s better than the risks inherent in polling place-based elections that increasingly rely on electronic voting machines and proprietary software systems to record and tally votes. Though also extremely difficult to pull off, a single software hack potentially affects thousands of votes. It’s the difference between “retail fraud” and “wholesale fraud.” As one county clerk once put it to me, “Ever wonder why no one bothers to counterfeit pennies? If you’re going to risk the jail time, $20s and $100s make a lot more sense.”
Finally, there’s the issue of recounts in close elections. Every paper ballot cast in vote-at-home states can be physically inspected and re-tallied. Contrast that to states where electronic voting machines are so outdated that paper records don’t exist, and where recounts would have to focus on lines of software code. In the absence of paper ballots that voters directly filled out, who can definitively prove the software code wasn’t tampered with prior to the recount?