The Only Safe Election Is a Low-Tech Election

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After Monday’s Iowa caucus debacle, I’ve decided that Americans should vote by etching our preferred candidate’s name into a stone tablet with a hammer and chisel.

Or maybe by dropping pebbles into a series of urns, as the ancient Greeks did.

Or possibly just by voting the way we voted for much of the 20th century, on punch-card machines that spit out paper ballots to be hand-counted by election workers, with zero iPhones in sight.

Basically, we should be begging for the most analog election technology possible. Because what happened on Monday night — a long and confusing delay in vote counting, due in part to a mobile app that was hastily designed and inadequately tested[1] before being deployed in one of America’s most important elections — was an inexcusable failure. It caused distress and confusion, set off innumerable conspiracy theories, and started the 2020 election season by undermining trust in the democratic process.

And all because Iowa Democrats wanted a new app.

The app, whose name was kept secret by Democratic officials, was compared to a “fancy calculator” that was supposed to help Iowa caucus chairs send their results to the state Democratic Party. But as my colleagues reported[2], it posed problems for caucus precinct chairs all day.

Some chairs weren’t able to use it at all. Others had connectivity issues, or simply didn’t know how to work the app, and were forced to endure long hold times on a phone hotline instead.

There is no indication that any of these technical issues changed the results of the caucuses, or that any systems were hacked or compromised. And there were nontechnical issues that may have added to the chaos, such as new rules and worksheets that were designed to simplify the caucus process but seemed mostly to have sown confusion.

Regardless, the damage was done. The hours spent waiting for overdue results created an information vacuum, which was quickly filled by conspiracy theorists. By nightfall, liberals and conservatives alike were tossing around allegations of vote tampering and election rigging, and casting doubt over the legitimacy of the caucuses.

Democrats quickly began blaming Shadow, the tech start-up that built the app, and Acronym, a Democratic digital strategy operation that invested in Shadow. These firms do deserve scrutiny, not least because it appears that they neglected to quickly respond when reports of user issues began surfacing on Monday.

(Late Monday, Acronym put out a statement, saying that it did not provide technology to the Iowa Democratic Party and that it was merely an investor in Shadow.)

But Democrats should also blame their party’s leadership for entrusting such an important process to new technology in the first place — not just in Iowa but in places like Nevada, where Democrats are reportedly planning to use a similar mobile app to tally votes in that state’s caucuses this month.

It’s enough to make you wonder: Have these party officials ever been to a polling site or a caucus venue? They are not pristine WeWorks with blazing fast internet connections and an army of Geek Squad workers on call. They are mostly high school gyms, nursing homes and church basements with cinder-block walls and horrible cellphone service. The people who work at them are volunteers, and many are — how can I put this delicately? — members of the generation that still refers to the TV remote as “the clicker.”

Using a proprietary app to report vote totals is the kind of thing that sounds simple on a start-up’s whiteboard but utterly falls apart in a chaotic real-world environment, where connections drop, phones malfunction and poorly tested apps strain under a surge of traffic. Add an army of frenzied poll workers, impatient voters and twitchy news media, and you might as well have asked the caucus workers to whip up their own JavaScript.

I’m not opposed to technology in political campaigning. Want to use Facebook ads to drum up donors? Go for it. Want to put your voter database on the blockchain? Be my guest.

But when it comes to the actual business of registering and counting people’s votes, many of the smartest tech experts I know fiercely oppose high-tech solutions, like “paperless” digital voting machines and mobile voting apps. After all, every piece of technology involved in the voting process is a possible point of failure. And the larger and more interconnected the technical system, the more vulnerable it is to an attack.

“Many of the leading opponents of paperless voting machines were, and still are, computer scientists, because we understand the vulnerability of voting equipment in a way most election officials don’t,” said Barbara Simons, a computer scientist and board chair of Verified Voting, an election security nonprofit, in an interview with The Atlantic in 2017[3].

In Iowa, there is a silver lining: The caucus system doesn’t use voting machines at all, and its public, open-air nature means that it is less susceptible to tampering than a secret ballot. In addition, state officials this year required[4] caucusgoers to fill out paper “presidential preference cards,” which could be used in case of a recount. So despite the delays, there is at least some certainty that the results will be accurate when they are finally announced.

And it may be too close to November’s elections to overhaul state election technology, or to institute the kind of much-needed election security reforms that have been repeatedly proposed by Democrats (and blocked by Republicans[5]) since 2016.

So unless something changes, get used to the era of the voting day software glitch. Because we’ve invited tech into our elections, whether or not it’s up for the task.

References

  1. ^ hastily designed and inadequately tested (www.nytimes.com)
  2. ^ my colleagues reported (www.nytimes.com)
  3. ^ an interview with The Atlantic in 2017 (www.theatlantic.com)
  4. ^ required (www.nytimes.com)
  5. ^ blocked by Republicans (www.nytimes.com)
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