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The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about! We are posting selected articles each week to give readers time to savor the array of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays in this very special issue. Check the website every Monday!

The Future of Voting

Monday, February 22, 2021

Author: Juan E. Gilbert

The 2000 presidential election forever changed voting in the United States. In that election Florida used a paper ballot that left voters uncertain about their selections after they cast their ballot. Analysis of the paper ballots showed that the voters were right to be uncertain. The entire nation became all too familiar with the term “hanging chad.”

Afterward, many citizens wondered why they were still voting on paper. Technology had advanced in nearly every sector of life—except voting.

In response to the problematic election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA 2002), allocating millions of dollars to make voting more secure, usable, and accessible. But is the election process now better than it was in 2000? Many would say not so much. In some elections voters have stood in line to vote for hours, in others their intent has been called into question, as in the 2000 presidential election (e.g., the Minnesota 2008 and Alaska 2010 Senate races; Duchschere and Oakes 2008; Medred and Saul 2010).

Attempts to go paperless have included direct recording equipment machines, which didn’t print a paper ballot but simply recorded voters’ selections through mechanical or electrooptical components and then tallied the results at the end. Without a paper trail, many experts questioned the integrity of such machines (e.g., Appel et al. 2009; Schwartz 2018). No one could know with certainty that votes had not been changed.

Given the current state of technology, there is no known way to secure a digital ballot.

Gilbert figure 1.gif

Ballot Marking Devices

Questions about foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election led to an expert study on voting (NASEM 2018). Of the resulting recommendations, probably the most discussed is that all elections should be conducted with paper ballots that are either produced by a ballot marking device (BMD; figure 1) or hand-marked by the voter. BMDs typically use a touchscreen with headphones and switches for accessibility. They allow voters to make their selections and then print a ballot showing those selections.

But recent studies have criticized BMDs because some voters do not verify the printed ballot (e.g., Appel et al. 2019). The BMD may print the wrong selection if the voter makes a mistake in their selection, there is an error in the code, or the system has been hacked. If the voter doesn’t review the ballot, the selections may have been changed without their or anyone else’s knowledge. If enough voters don’t notice, an election’s outcome could be changed undetected.

Improved Accessibility

Improved accessibility is an area that has shown significant gains since the 2000 presidential election. HAVA requires that all citizens be able to privately and independently cast a ballot. Initially, each voting place had to have at least one accessible voting machine. This created a separate but equal approach to voting that did not work very well because, given the relatively infrequent use of the accessible voting machines, poll workers didn’t know how to set them up.

But HAVA spurred advances to make voting more accessible for people with disabilities, resulting in technologies and methods that did not exist in 2000. For example, I developed an open-source, universally designed voting machine called Prime III (Gilbert 2016); since then other BMDs have implemented universal design features. These features mean that the machines are designed for everyone to use independent of their ability (Sabatino and Spurgeon 2016). So voters with disabilities can now use the same machines to vote as anyone else.

In 2020 the covid-19 pandemic further complicated voting as voting by mail and absentee voting increased significantly. For voters with disabilities, voting by mail can be a challenge as the voter has to hand mark and sign the ballot before mailing it back. The good news is that several states are adopting accessible measures for absentee voters through an online ballot marking interface. This allows voters to use their accessible technology (e.g., a screen reader) to mark, review, and then print and mail the ballot.

Where Are Voting Technologies Headed?

Many people wonder, “Will we have internet voting any time soon?” The answer is no. Technical advances currently do not support it. Furthermore, there is no strategic research initiative at the national level to address the security challenges of internet voting.

The ability to manipulate a digital ballot still exists. Until there’s a guarantee that a digital ballot can be secured, internet voting will not happen. Even with end-to-end cryptographic systems (Chaum et al. 2008), encrypted files can be deleted or destroyed. Encryption doesn’t protect against deletion.

However, I see potential options for experiences comparable to internet voting that result in paper -ballots. Accessible absentee voting is an example. Future voters may use a video conferencing format to verify their identity and then mark their ballot and print it at a remote location (e.g., the precinct courthouse or polling location), monitoring it through their computer during this process. It’s like a BMD where the interface is the voter’s home computer and the printer is at the precinct.

In the future BMDs will probably still be used, but with a major interface makeover. To address the concern about voters not reviewing their ballots, transparent BMDs may have a printer behind the touchscreen: when voters touch the screen to cast their vote their selections will be printed on paper and voters will have to interact with the paper through the touchscreen before the vote is registered (audio options will also be available). This option would require voters to review their ballot in order to advance the voting process.

Conclusion

Technical advances in voting have moved very slowly and will continue to do so unless the government designates progress in this area as a national priority or moonshot, with corresponding financial support. Nevertheless, based on progress to date—such as the development of a universally designed machine that is accessible to all voters regardless of ability—I am optimistic about the impact of future advances to make voting more secure, reliable, and accessible.

References

Appel AW, Ginsburg M, Hursti H, Kernighan BW, Richards CD, Tan G, Venetis P. 2009. The New Jersey Voting machine Lawsuit and the AVC Advantage DRE Voting Machine. Electronic Voting Technology Workshop / Workshop on Trustworthy Elections, Aug 10–14, Montreal.

Appel A, DeMillo R, Stark PB. 2019. Ballot-marking devices (BMDs) cannot assure the will of the voters. Online at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3375755.

Chaum D, Essex A, Carback R, Clark J, Popoveniuc S, Sherman A, Vora P. 2008. Scantegrity: End-to-end voter-verifiable optical-scan voting. IEEE Security & Privacy 6(3):40–46.

Duchschere K, Oakes L. 2008. Day 4: Ballot-counters press on, find glitches. Minnesota Star Tribune, Nov 22.

Gilbert JE. 2016. How universal design can help every voter cast a ballot. The Conversation, May 2. Online at https://theconversation.com/how-universal-design-can-help- every-voter-cast-a-ballot-54373.

HAVA [Help America Vote Act]. 2002. Public Law 107-252, 107th Congress, United States.

Medred C, Saul J. 2010. Miller sues over misspelled Murkowski ballots in Alaska Senate race. Anchorage Daily News, Nov 9.

NASEM [National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine]. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington: National Academies Press.

Sabatino CP, Spurgeon ED. 2016. Facilitating voting as people age: Implications of cognitive impairment. McGeorge Law Review 38(4):843–59.

Schwartz J. 2018. The vulnerabilities of our voting machines. Scientific American, Nov 1.

About the Author:Juan Gilbert is the Andrew Banks Family Preeminence Endowed Professor and chair of the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the University of Florida.