How has the Science of Elections Changed?

The Science Behind Better Elections

Waiting for election night results can create stress for anyone interested in the outcome. It’s a time when voters may ponder the science of election technology: what makes it safe, secure, fast and reliable?

From ancient Greeks dropping coins into urns, to infamous butterfly ballots, and now to Internet voting, election technology has continually evolved to play a crucial role in democracy’s defining activity. Yet most voters are probably more familiar with a candidate’s latest tweet than the nuts and bolts of our electoral machinery.

How has voting technology changed over the years? What is the state of our voting systems today? What’s next?

A Variety of Systems

For centuries, voting methods were simple — placing balls or stones in jars, voice votes, shows of hands, and paper ballots. Election technology took off in the U.S. in the mid-1800s after millions of new immigrants rapidly doubled the electorate. The next century saw a slow but steady stream of innovations: mechanical voting machines in 1892, punch cards in the 1930s, optical character recognition and computerized readers in the 1960s and 1970s, touch-screen direct recording electronic voting systems in the 1980s and 1990s, and experiments in Internet voting in the early 2000s.

Today, the U.S. voting system is a mix of these manual, mechanical, electronic, optical scanning, computerized systems, spread across 3,141 counties, according to Election Data Services. An estimated 75% of U.S. votes are cast on paper ballots.

The systems vary by jurisdiction because the U.S. Constitution gives states the responsibility of running elections — and selecting technology.

New Technologies for Voters

Government officials, scientists, engineers and election monitoring groups are working hard to develop and deploy new election technology that makes it easier for voters to register, while creating more secure voting systems.

Some innovations are modest. Take a new precinct count card reader deployed in Chicago, for example. It counts ballots four times, then transmits a tally via wireless; creates a paper tape; checks against a memory cartridge; and permits hand counting of ballots.

The National Democratic Institute (NDI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, says 14 countries have used remote Internet voting for elections or referenda. Others have tried and discontinued. Only Estonia offers Internet voting to its entire electorate, and has done so since 2005.

The U.S. Vote Foundation recently published detailed requirements for End-to-End Verifiable Internet Voting (E2E-VIV) as an alternative to traditional election systems. The authors, a team of experts in cryptography, high-assurance engineering, election integrity and administration, consider U.S. public elections a matter of national security.

One intriguing new technology being evaluated for voting is block chain. Advocates like Follow My Vote say the secured, shared internet database that underpins the controversial BitCoin currency could easily be adapted for certifying the integrity of online voting. Others, like Dr. Jeremy Clark, a specialist in cryptographic voting systems at Concordia University, cautions, “If voters generate or are provided cryptographic keys to use in the voting process, hackers will concentrate on compromising these keys through interception or malware.”

The Future: Paper or Critical Infrastructure?

Ironically, some believe that offline elections and paper ballots — yes, paper — might be the best, safest election technology, at least for the near future. “We’ve had a long time to work out the procedures with paper ballots,” says Stanford’s Dill. “(We) need to think twice before we try to throw a new technology at the problem.”

Also ironically, the decentralized nature of elections in the U.S. and offline tabulation systems make hacking an election difficult, notes FBI Director James Comey.

Even so, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has urged the federal government to consider classifying voting machines as critical infrastructure like power grids, airports, and hospitals. Doing so would let the department set national security standards for things like using USB keys, connecting to the Internet, audits and security.

That’s a view shared by the Open Source Election Technology Foundation, a 10-year old Silicon Valley nonprofit election technology research institute. For now, the group says, the only way to have safe elections is to disconnect anything related to ballots, counting or voter check-in from the Internet and wireless networks, and physically secure election back-office systems, using law enforcement to guard the chain of custody for paper ballots.

Ultimately, technical optimists argue that advances in commercial technology, Open Source Software, and advances in user experience design and cyber security will bring voting technology, albeit haltingly, into a safer new cyber age.