“A Republic, madam, if you can keep it.” This was Ben Franklin’s description of the fragile product of the new United States Constitution, in answer to a Mrs. Powel, as he left the convention hall on Sept. 17, 1787. He could as well have been describing the country on Nov. 6, 2012. We share Ben’s anxiety as members of a growing number of worried computer scientists, analysts and election administrators who fear what will happen on Election Day. We worry that the nation will end up with no confidence in the election results, regardless of who wins.
That’s because we have no systematic way to detect malfunctions in the voting machines or tabulators on Election Day. Manual audits of the paper ballots could detect such errors, or even tampering, but, except for New Mexico, states conduct either insufficient audits or, as in Michigan, no audits whatsoever. Other countries hand-count votes in a transparent, public manner. But we Americans have no way to really know who won.
We worry that there could be widespread fraud in the sending of voted military and overseas ballots by fax, email or other vulnerable internet methods. State laws have opened the door: 32 states, including swing states Arizona, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Nevada, to allow voters to electronically return voted-on ballots via the internet, which provides no security, no voter privacy and no chain of custody. Such transactions cannot be verified to ensure that the vote will be counted as cast.