LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Of voting machines and democracy

[Originally Published in the Delaware State News September 4th, 2018.]

Jennifer Hill, on Aug. 21, makes a compelling case for transparency in the purchase of new voting systems for Delaware. (“Transparency sought in voting machine purpose”)

It’s sadly true that transparency is seldom a prominent feature of Delaware government. “The Delaware Way” tends to closed-door dealmaking and incestuous relationships with vendors.

In Minnesota, voters mark paper ballots. These go into a machine, which scans them and records the votes. If for some reason the ballot does not scan properly, the machine so indicates and the voter immediately gets a new ballot. The ballots themselves are retained in the machine and are available for recounts, etc. This system surely isn’t perfect, but in general it inspires confidence.

Delaware’s model 1242 voting machines have been around since the mid 1980s and have been used in Delaware since the 1990s. (Here are two discussions of these machines: https://www.verifiedvoting.org/resources/voting-equipment/danaher/shouptronic/ , http://perfect.cse.lehigh.edu/Documents/JoeSiefersReportSpring2008.pdf )

These machines have been sold by several vendors and it’s not clear who is presently supporting them. It does seem clear that potential manipulators have had over three decades to explore means of jimmying these machines, and with U.S. elections often “close” any such meddling could be significant.

The fundamental problem with this approach to voting is that there is no “paper trail” of individual ballots, and thus no way to independently confirm that the count is correct. Electronic systems are so complex that 100 percent security is impossible, and the analyses of voting machine security from computer experts that I have seen are not comforting.

Whom do we worry about? Voting products from corporations controlled by rabid Republicans? Russian hackers? “Voter Suppression” programs (and we know what political party pushes this)? Recreational hackers? Who knows? Even if we assume that Delaware election officials would never knowingly allow manipulating results, there are plenty of others to be concerned about.

Some years ago, I attended a demonstration of the 1242 machines by the Department of Elections,along with representatives of other organizations. I felt alone in not going away with confidence in the integrity of the systems.

This was simply because I knew I didn’t know enough to recognize all the potential vulnerabilities. Few do, nor is it obvious that qualified electronic security experts have been part of Delaware’s purchasing team. And that’s not comforting at all.

Of course, election integrity involves a lot more than picking out new voting machines. Turnout in U.S. elections tends to be quite low. Partly, I think, because many potential voters don’t like any of the candidates, but lack of confidence in the technical integrity of voting systems is a part of the problem that can be fixed. There is a lot at stake.

Elections Commissioner Elaine Manlove and her colleagues can help by making their work a model of openness, and by cooperating with good-government organizations.

Alan Muller
Green Delaware

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