In January, America’s main intelligence agencies issued a report concluding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, using a combination of cyber-intrusion, espionage, and propaganda. In addition to the details provided in this account, media outlets have since reported that several election databases were hacked before and after the election. While the Department of Homeland Security found no evidence any of these efforts manipulated vote tallies, the assaults have left many Americans asking: Just how safe are voting machines from cyberattack? The answer is not reassuring. For more than a decade, independent security experts have repeatedly demonstrated that many electronic voting machines are dangerously insecure and vulnerable to attack and manipulation by bad actors.
As it happens, a huge percentage of America’s voting machines must be replaced before the next presidential election, if for no other reason than they have reached the end of their lifespans. A study I co-authored last year with a colleague at the Brennan Center showed that 43 states were using voting machines that were at least a decade old, perilously close to the end of the projected lifespans for most of these systems. Not surprisingly, election officials in 31 states told us they hoped to replace their equipment within the next five years.
Security experts and voting-machine vendors are already exploring what’s needed to make the next generation of machines more secure. Among the wide variety of solutions being explored or proposed are use of encryption, blockchain, and open source software.
While each of these technologies can offer a path to more secure voting, the most important technology for enhancing security has been around for millennia: paper. Specifically, every new voting machine in the United States should have a paper record that the voter reviews, and that can be used later to check the electronic totals that are reported.
This could be a paper ballot the voter fills out before it is scanned by a machine, or a record created by the machine on which the voter makes her selections—so long as she can review that record and make changes before casting her vote.