"The issues that we are talking about have been around for almost two decades now, and they've been identified for almost that entire time." — Matt Bernhard
The 2018 midterm elections have wrapped up here in the U.S., and issues with voting machines are back in the news cycle. It's not a hanging chad situation like the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida, but malfunctions, outdated tech, and talk of interference from foreign powers has tanked voter confidence. With the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign season about to kickoff, how do you rock the vote when you're not even sure it's being properly counted? And how do you put trust in a voting system that's full of weak links?
On Function this week, we're looking at voting machines and election security. Anil talks with Verified Voting data consultant Matt Bernhard about the history of voting machines and the broad social implications of technology and privacy. We also talk to Maurice Turner, a former poll worker and senior technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, who gives practical advice for individual voters who are worried about the trustworthiness of their local precincts.
- Verified Voting
- Center for Democracy and Technology
- AccuVote TS
- Serious Vulnerabilities in Georgia’s Online Voter Registration System (Medium)
- Can Georgia’s electronic voting machines be trusted? (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Big thanks to Microsoft Azure for supporting the first season of Function.
Anil Dash: Welcome to Function. I'm Anil Dash. On Function, we talk about the way technology impacts the world and impacts culture and society, but nothing is more dramatic in impact than when we talk about democracy itself. This time out on Function, we're talking about voting machines. They are the technology that enables our votes to be counted and registered, and in a lot of real ways, enables our voices to be heard. The wild thing about voting machines, though, is they are some broken ass technology. They're old a lot of times; they don't run real well. The people running them don't always know how they're supposed to work, and even in the best case, they don't always have a paper audit trail to check whether a vote was actually counted. It's a mess.
Then, add in security concerns. The truth is a lot of voting machines, even new ones, are pretty easily hacked, and whether that's by the white hat hackers — the good guys who like to find security issues — or foreign interests that are trying to affect an election, a lot of folks know their way into these voting machines and can skew the results in ways we might not even be able to detect. And that's important context to know because there's a lot of hand-wringing, especially in right-wing media, about voter fraud. The truth is voter fraud statistically doesn't happen. What can happen, though, is election fraud or election tampering.
You see, there's all the usual mechanisms of disenfranchisement where black and brown communities are targeted for everything from regular old voter suppression like hampering early voting, shutting down polling places, or even just spreading misinformation about voting access. And then on top of that, you add in really heavy burdens around voter ID and registration, and all these things add up to almost insurmountable barriers. But we make it even worse if voting machines themselves are faulty. There's nothing more basic in disenfranchisement than if your vote isn't counted.
Like some of you, I'm old enough to remember the election of 2000.
[audio breaks to random news reports]
Female reporter: A big call to make, CNN announces that we call Florida in the Al Gore column. This is a state both campaigns desperately wanted to win.
Male reporter: Stand by. CNN, right now, is moving our earlier declaration of Florida back to the...
[audio breaks back to Anil Dash]
AD: The presidential election of Bush versus Gore.
[audio breaks to random news report]
Male reporter: George Bush, Governor of Texas will become the 43rd President of the United States.
[audio breaks back to Anil Dash]
AD: Where it all came down to that big recount in Florida, and voting machines played a central role in that entire drama.
[audio breaks to random news report]
Female reporter: As Florida's elections for Senator and Governor remain unresolved, Governor Rick Scott has dropped his motion to impound voting machines in Broward County.
[audio breaks back to Anil Dash]
AD: The wild thing is, 18 years later, states are still having the same kinds of issues. We saw this in the midterms in the 2018 elections in Georgia and Florida.
[audio breaks to random news reports]
Male reporter: The vote count continues in Florida, always a key state in presidential elections, and this year, the scene of tight races for Governor and the Senate.
Female reporter: Georgia's high profile Governor's race is still undecided. Republican Brian Kemp holds a narrow lead over Democrat Stacey Abrams. She told supporters overnight, she will not concede.
Stacey Abrams: We cannot seize it until all voices are heard, and I promise you tonight, we are going to make sure that every vote is counted.
[audio breaks back to Anil Dash]
AD: Let's take a closer look at that election in Georgia; Stacey Abrams challenging Brian Kemp in the race for Governor of Georgia. Before Election Day, there were all kinds of classic disenfranchisement efforts trying to keep voters away from the polls before the election even started, but you get to Election Day, and the voting machines come into the mix as one of the biggest barriers. There were reports of there not being enough voting machines in polling places, some voting machines not working, and even some machines that were registering votes for Kemp even though those voters had voted for Abrams.
[audio breaks to random news report]
Female reporter: The Georgia NAACP is filing a complaint about touchscreen voting machines in four counties, and according to this complaint, several voters say they tried to vote for Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams, but the machines, instead, chose Republican candidate Brian Kemp.
[audio breaks back to Anil Dash]
AD: The NAACP of Georgia filed a complaint against Brian Kemp, because you see, Kemp wasn't just a candidate for Governor — he's also the Secretary of State. That means he was the one overseeing the election, and people were reporting irregularities with voting machines across the state of Georgia.
In this case, when technology doesn't work, it's not just an annoying bug. It doesn't mean there's just something wrong with an app. When a voting machine technology doesn't work, it means somebody's voice isn't heard. This is real human impact. The whole idea of democracy is that you have to be heard, but if we're depending on technology that isn't secure, can't be trusted, isn't reliable, then that entire promise is a lie.
A little later in the show, we're going to hear from Maurice Turner. Maurice works with the Center for Democracy and Technology, and if we really want to understand how voting machines work in the real world, he's the perfect person. He's been on the ground with poll workers making sure they know how to use this kind of technology to register everyone's vote, and he knows about every problem that can arise.
But first, speaking of somebody like myself who's actually created technology over the years, it seems like all these issues with voting machines should be something we could just fix. Can't we just upgrade the software or something? It turns out fixing the technology of voting machines is pretty damn hard.
My guest, Matt Bernhard, explained that voting machines are probably one of the toughest kinds of technologies that you could build these days. Matt is a Ph.D. student, and he teaches a class about election security at the University of Michigan, and he knows top to bottom how voting machines work. Matt and I talked before the midterm elections, but the wild thing is everything that he predicted about the risks of voting machines going wrong, we saw versions of that happen on Election Day. He even talked specifically about the risks of the voting machines in the state of Georgia.
"You could sit on your couch in Russia and infect every voting machine in Georgia." — Matt Bernhard
AD: Matt, welcome to Function.
Matt Bernhard: Hi. Thanks for having me.
AD: Before we get into the challenges we're facing today, I want to back up a little bit and give people a little bit of context about how we got to where we're at. Obviously, you go back far enough in time, and voting is sort of a thumbs up/thumbs down thing, you move on to paper rolls, and then we start to get to this age of automation and things. What's a little bit of the background that people who are thinking about these issues should know about how we ended up with the kinds of voting machines we have today?
MB: A lot of current law, state law, around voting, came to the floor in the mid 20th century with lever voting machines, and we also began to see the first wave of computer voting machines, most of which are gone now, but the real touchstone event was the 2000 election, Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court case, and the butterfly ballots in Florida. In 2002, in response to this outdated technology that wasn't really usable and very visibly caused major election problems, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which was $3 billion that went to states so that they could replace either their old lever machines, their punch-card machines, basically all their old voting equipment. And so there was this big push to modernize voting, and there were no good modern voting machines on the market at the time, so there was a mad scramble by a bunch of companies who some of whom had built voting machines before like ES&S, Hart InterCivic, those kinds of companies, and some of whom had never built voting machines before, like Diebold. And so they basically pushed out these systems that just met the bare minimum requirements. It was basically a rush job, and jurisdictions all over the country bought them. They were selling like hotcakes.
Then, as time went on, people in the computer science world and other policy tech spaces started scratching their heads and looking at these machines a little bit more closely and realizing, "Wait a minute. There's no encryption on these. There's no record. If the software gets hacked, there's no way to know. There's no record or anything like that, so maybe we need to take a step back and reevaluate." That started in, I guess, about 2004, and had been basically up to 2016. No one cared. It was shouting into the void, and then we saw in 2016 with a major presidential candidate saying, basically, that the elections were going to be hacked. For the first time, we saw significant actions by a nation state to attempt to infiltrate and disrupt an election, and so that brought a lot more attention to it. But the issues that we're talking about have been around for almost two decades now, and they've been identified for almost that entire time.
AD: It's almost [as if] there's a reaction to the hanging chad moment, and everybody says, "We gotta go all in on becoming digital and turning these things into electronic system instead of the mechanical systems that preceded them," and probably no small part of that, too, is that it's 2000 election, but it's also this Internet gold rush and everybody's saying, "We have to get more digital and electronic in everything we do," and all of the states make this move at the same time, and they have the funding to say, "We're gonna buy these new machines."
MB: That's correct, and I am obviously a little biased because I do think that these machines are bad and that they need to be replaced, but to the credit of the vendors who made them, they did improve in several areas. If you're a disabled voter, they made your life a lot easier. If you're an election official, they made your life a lot easier. It was easier to administrate and give people who maybe wouldn't have been able to vote before an easier path to voting, but it did create an awful lot of problems as well.
AD: One of the things you talked about, and I confess, I think, like a lot of folks, I probably don't know the names of all the vendors of voting machines, but there's a number of companies in this space, and it sounds like there's two camps. There's the people who are like, "Well, we've always made voting machines, and now we make electronic ones, but we're sort of modernizing and upgrading our stuff." Then there are folks who were doing other stuff, making ATMs or whatever, that said, "Oh, well, this is pretty similar. Maybe we can do voting, also." Is that right?
MB: Yeah. That's about right. They're legacy companies that have built voting machines for decades, and then a significant fraction, especially now, because a lot of the companies that got into it and then went out of the business, like Diebold, they basically all either have been pushed out or gotten out of the market. Now, what we see is these legacy companies, as well as a few newer specialized companies.
AD: That's an interesting sort of split where you have the old players and you have the new upstarts. There were the in between, the folks who dabbled in this. I think Diebold is probably the highest profile of all these because there has been a lot of online blowback about perhaps some of the choices they made in designing their systems, right?
MB: The Diebold machines are the most studied machines in the literature and the research, partially because they were so widely adopted. The AccuVote TS was the most widely used voting machine I think up until 2008, and it was just so unbelievably broken. Nothing, no reasonable person...
AD: It wasn't the most studied because people like the colors of it.
MB: Exactly. No reasonable person would look at that machine and think, "Oh, this is...I'm comfortable running our elections on this." It's worth noting that machine is still in use. The entire state of Georgia uses that machine.
AD: Let's talk about the problems that happen. I want to start at a couple levels. First of all, just the process, if you're voting, you've got a couple of choices, and the problem space is basically you want to make sure the person is who they say they are and they're on the rolls and allowed to vote, and then you want to have the right listed candidates in front of them, and then you want to record which ones they voted for, and then want to make sure that record is there for people to be able to count up. Is that pretty much the problem overall?
MB: Yeah. It's a good deal more complex than that, but that's the general shape. There are other considerations. In the US, we have the Americans with Disabilities Act, so you have to account for people who can't see or don't have fine motor control — things like that. There are some states have expanded the votes, so they have no-reason absentee voting. There are lots of states that do postal voting, but in general, yeah...you're right that it is figuring out who can vote, figuring out what they can vote for, figuring out how they can vote, and then counting up the votes.
AD: Obviously, we care a lot about election security and the privacy of the vote and all those other related issues, but even acknowledging, obviously, it's more complicated than that simple flow that I outlined. But it doesn't sound to me like any individual piece is pushing the boundaries of what computer science can do. You're not inventing something new here. You're just assembling pieces of problems that people have solved before.
MB: Well, it's interesting you say that because that's actually not true. Voting is arguably, at least as far as I'm aware, one of the hardest computer science problems. We have cryptography, we have sophisticated design techniques, we have secure software and networking and all of these different fields. All of them are involved in voting, and so, oftentimes, many of these fields don't actually interact with each other, so that's one way in which voting is a little bit more nuanced and difficult. At the core of the problem, we have this need for secrecy. You shouldn't be able to tell someone how you voted because otherwise, they might buy your vote or they might break your kneecaps if you don't vote who they wanted you to vote for. But at the same time, we also have this really strong requirement of wanting to know that our elections are correct. I want to know that my vote was counted, and there is no other problem in computer science that I know of, or really in general, that has this tension between the need for secrecy and also the strong desire for verification.
People will often say, "Well, I bank on my smartphone. Why can't I vote on my smartphone?" It's exactly that. You aren't harmed if someone knows what your account balance is. Maybe they can try to rob you, but they can't disenfranchise you as a result of that. In voting, if someone knows how you voted, there are all kinds of things that could go wrong. There are many different ways that you could lose your voice.
AD: You could lose your job. It could ruin Thanksgiving. All kinds of things could happen.
MB: Exactly. Not only that, the government could fundamentally grind to a halt because we can't decide who should run it. The stakes are incredibly high, and there's this tension between privacy and verifiability that really doesn't exist in any other problem space.
AD: There is something different about this. This isn't like building an ATM. This isn't like building any other sort of machine that we interact with, the cash register or something like that. This is a unique problem space, and it sounds to me like one of the challenges here is you've got different kinds of technologists that are having to sit down and work together, people that may not have ever met before or collaborated before.
MB: That's correct. Honestly, a lot of major advances in cryptography have been made as a result of trying to solve the voting problem. Not to get too technical, but things like mixnets didn't exist until someone was like, "Well, how do we let people vote securely, but also verify their vote and not get compromised?" Technologies like that were basically invented to try and solve this problem. Like you mentioned, there is this interplay between various fields of computer science, psychology, political science, that interact in voting in ways that they don't otherwise, and that also creates a lot of friction. The more technical side of things; we can build a voting system that is secure, more or less. It may be the case that no one can use it. If no one can use it, then no one can accurately vote. That's a whole problem unto itself.
AD: Okay, so now I am 100% convinced. This problem is hard. This is tough. This is not a casual thing. It actually, to some degree, means that some of the proposals of like, well we should just open source it, now we need that for accountability, but that doesn't solve everybody can just contribute, every coder in the world is going to help write this thing.
MB: Well, and you know, open source is an interesting thing. I think it's good to encourage more transparency in the election, but open source doesn't solve any of the problems about having malware on your voting machines. It's great that you have this pristine code base on the internet that anyone can look at, but there's no way to verify that that code that you've written is actually what's running on the machines. So, you know, there are other steps that have to be taken in addition to people's first sort of naïve solutions like open source, like blockchain. There are things that may work okay with the problem, but they don't solve the problem.
AD: You know, a trait of this problem is that everybody's got a stake in it, everybody's got an opinion on it, everybody has that limit experience, hopefully, of at least having voted, and that's unusual in that most enormously complex problems. Like if we talk about a moonshot, everybody's not like, "well I've been to space and here's what my experience was."
MB: Exactly, yeah.
AD: So, let's get into where we're at today. Let's take Georgia. There's so much going on around various efforts around voter suppression...all those things. It's a very, very fraught environment. They have got what sounds like the worst machines in place already. Talk me through some of the shortcomings and the problems about what's there today.
MB: There's a lot. If people are particularly interested, I've actually written an article going into very fine detail about this, but Georgia...
AD: We'll share that out in the show notes. Give me the greatest hits or the greatest misses of what's bad here.
MB: So Georgia's a weird state in that they are, as far as I know, the only state that is entirely centralized. The state of Georgia runs elections. In most states — Texas where I'm originally from — every county is responsible for their elections. In Michigan, in Wisconsin and a couple of other places, it's even down to the township/city level. That is good and bad. There are efficiencies to be made when you have consistency across your state. But also it creates a huge vulnerability. If something goes wrong at the Secretary of State's office, it effects every voter in Georgia. They're using these AccuVote TS machines that are.... My advisor, when he was in grad school, broke the AccuVote TS machine a decade ago, and this is still being used. They haven't really been updated, and we have numerous problems that have been reported. Poll tapes that don't make any sense, voters who say that they got the wrong ballot. There's all kinds of weird things that have been going on there.
AD: And serious problems.
MB: Yeah, serious problems.
AD: Not like a little display problem.
[audio breaks to random news report]
Frustrated Voter: When it was my turn, after waiting three hours, I had difficulties with casting my vote because the machine kept glitching, and it as pausing and freezing. So then I asked someone to tell me what to do about it, because my vote wasn't letting me cast. They told me there was nothing we could do about it.
[audio breaks back to Anil and Matt]
MB: Or you know, people go in to the precinct to check in to vote, and they're told that they're in the wrong precinct, but the person who lives with them is in the right precinct. It just makes no sense. Again, it goes back to these black box voting machines that no one can look at. They produce election night results instantaneously in most cases, but the past few elections... Fulton County had major technical problems and they couldn't get results out. There was a three hour delay. There's all kinds of issues. The way that the machines get programmed is a really appealing vector for malware. If you wanted to infect these? You could sit on your couch in Russia and infect every voting machine in Georgia.
AD: That actually raises a point. Not to hand away the complexity of this, let's imagine that you could fix every bug in these machines. You sit down, you write all the software and you make all the updates. Is it like my iPhone? Can I just download an update and all the voting machines are updated and now we're good?
MB: No. These voting machines are running on an operating system that came out in 1999, and hasn't been patched since, I don't know, 2012 or something like that. To Georgia's credit, for the most part they aren't connected to the internet, so you can't just download the patch. They do have some features where you could stick a memory card in it, you could update, you could flash the firmware and update the software. Again, going back to this path of vulnerability...if I'm an attacker, I look at that and say, "Oh great, I can convince them to try to plug my software into everyone of their machines." There's no real guarantee that what they're doing is correct. You could write the best software in the world. You could have perfect security on these machines, but at the end of the day, it would still be impossible for a voter to know that their vote was counted correctly because there is no independent record. There's nothing that anyone can look at and say, beyond the shadow of a doubt, yes this is what this voter voted for, we can count all of these ballots independently, and we can guarantee that the election result that was produced by these machines is correct. It's just not possible.
AD: That's sort of the state of the art in the state of Georgia, and many other places across the country, maybe even around the world. We look at this issue, although I think it probably is particularly worse in the U.S. than in other environments. Is that right?
MB: It depends. Brazil uses almost the same model of machine that Georgia uses. It's more customized, but there are a couple other places in the world. India uses electronic voting machines. For the most part, most of the world votes on paper. There are places in Africa where they do vote on paper, but they have other issues with voter registration and authentication...stuff like that. In most places, yeah, you're right, the problem is a little bit less bad. One thing to note is that US elections are actually very unique. Because we have this strange top-down federal system, our ballots are very, very complex, whereas in Europe if you're voting, or Canada, or wherever else, you vote for basically a party. You have one choice on your ballot and that's it. In the US, we have sometimes up to 80 races on a ballot, which makes this whole problem even worse.
AD: This is an interesting thing, because what we're talking about is, you don't have that audit trail. You do have all these known issues. That's the ones we know about, let alone the ones we don't know about. It's at almost every aspect of the process. So maybe you're not seeing the right candidates, maybe you're not seeing the right geography. Even if all that is right, maybe your votes not properly recorded. Even if it's properly recorded, maybe it's not properly reported. And on and on down the road. All those things are sort of connected in together. And that's the occurring state of affairs. Then even if all that is right, and could be fixed, not necessarily can you get that fix out to all these machines. There's just...it's sort of like this nested set of problems. Inside each of these problems is another different problem.
So, now that we're sufficiently helpless, and we've seen how dire the circumstance is, are there any places in America that have started to turn the corner on changing this?
MB: Yeah, so most places actually. There is a lot of good news. We saw widespread adoption of DRE, sorry Direct Recorded Electronic Voting Machines, like these black boxes that are used in Georgia. In most places, in 2002, 2004 and since then, they've been slowly...the curtain of DRE has receded, so 70%+ of US votes are now cast with an independent paper record. Unfortunately we don't actually look at those paper records in a way, in most places, that can tell you useful things about the election, but there are a few states that do. Colorado, this election cycle, is rolling out a state-wide risk limiting audit. A risk limiting audit is just the statistical way to check. You can count a handful of ballots and basically ensure that the result reported by the voting machines is correct. So Colorado's doing this; Rhode Island's doing this. I think California just passed a resolution to do this. I don't know if it's this year or next. Michigan is experimenting with some different audit techniques. There are lots of states that are doing this.
AD: So California's not still DRE?
MB: I think there are a couple of counties that have DREs with paper trails, which are not ideal, but they're at least a little better than paperless. In most counties in California, it's either vote by mail or Optical scan handmarked paper ballots.
AD: A lot more people seem to be aware of the risks and dangers around our current voting infrastructure. There's at least a casual awareness even if they don't know the technical considerations. We now have some proof points to be able to be able to look at and say, "Well we can get better. We can make something that is more trustworthy, and it's not science fiction." It's something that's happening in reality. We have vendors that are incentivized, both from the fairness and the civil justifications of it, and also because they could probably have a business opportunity that they want to do the right thing here. If I'm a voter in the 95% of American jurisdictions that doesn't have a system that runs as well as it should, what are the steps I should take? Are there resources I should be looking at that's like, this is what to tell my elected officials? Are there groups I can join with to organize around saying "I would like to fix this issue?"
MB: Oh yeah, for sure. There are lots of "audit the vote" groups out there. As far as the individual is concerned, find who runs your elections. Whether it's a township clerk, a county clerk, and go talk to them. Ask them, "What is your system like, what can it do, what would it take for us to do secure audits." Go talk to your state legislator, make sure that they're aware of the issue. The state legislatures are the ones who actually can pass the laws that matter. You can also call your Congresspeople, in U.S. Congress. They passed a $380 million supplemental package to HAVA this year that has released, you know, every state now has something like $10 million plus to update their voting equipment with an emphasis on audits. There are a couple of bills in Congress. The Secure Elections Act, which I think might be tabled or dead, but there's always a successor to that that also promotes the use of better standards, better auditing practices. So there's that
And at the end of the day, if you're just coming up against a brick wall for all of this, encourage candidates to run on a platform of election transparency. That's one of the things that's going to help move us forward, is electing people and rewarding people for having that stance, and getting them elected. Of course, most candidates, once they get elected, they look at the voting system and say, "Well it elected me, so how bad can it be?" But hopefully, if we get more commitments on transparency and auditability, that'll help.
Then also, the other thing that I should add is, there are some sort of, I don't know if I should call them extreme, but, last ditch efforts that can be made. The recounts in 2016 were an example of this. Taking whatever existing policy and infrastructure that there is and pushing it to the limit to make sure that we can actually look at paper ballots and make sure that our votes are counted correctly. Ballots are public record. You can submit a Freedom of Information Act request to your township or county clerk, and look at the ballots if you want. It'll cost you a little bit of money, but in the absolute worst case scenario, it's also a viable option for making sure that your vote was counted.
AD: Great. Well Matt, that was a specific and detailed and thorough list of things we can do, and it gives me a little bit of hope to see that we've seen some progress, and also that you have come up with so many ways for people to be able to follow through and continue that progress in their local area. It couldn't be any more important an issue for people to work on. Ma
tt, thank you for joining us today, and for giving us a little bit of insight into how we might be able to fix some of the infrastructure around voting.
MB: Yeah, for sure, and like I said, this is not a problem that's going to be solved by everyone throwing up their hands and saying, "Oh, I don't trust the system, so let's stop using it." It's a problem that's going to be solved with more people to participate. It's easy for me to say that our voting system is bad, we can't know if our votes are counted and all of that, but the only real way to guarantee that your vote doesn't count is to not vote.
AD: Alright, on that note, I'm going to beseech everybody to follow your advice and your urging. Thank you again for joining us.
MB: Yeah, thanks for having me.
AD: We'll have more with Maurice Turner of the Center for Democracy and Technology after the break.
"We are really putting a lot of pressure and a lot of expectation on those local officials to basically have contingency plans for everything from a missing power cord to a sustained attack from a world power." — Maurice Turner
AD: Welcome back to Function. I'm Anil Dash. Now, earlier, Matt Bernhard laid out the technical concerns around voting machines. But next, we're going to turn to Maurice Turner. These days, Maurice is the senior technologist for the Center for Democracy and Technology, but back in the day, Maurice started his career as a poll worker. He was on the ground, in the voting precincts, working with the poll workers, making sure every vote got counted on Election Day.
Maurice Turner: Election Day is one of the longest days I think that anyone can have in any sort of a working capacity. The work starts at about 4:30 to 5:00, where people are waking up and the volunteers need to make sure that they're on site and all the equipment is being checked to make sure that it's working properly. Then it needs to be set up, and then verified again that it's working properly, so that way when the doors open at 7:00 AM, everything is ready to go, and the voters experience as little friction as possible.
AD: I talked to Maurice about his days as a poll worker, and how those experiences help him when the work he does now in ensuring that voters can have some confidence in the current elections process.
AD: Maurice, thanks for joining us.
MT: Thanks for having me; I appreciate it.
AD: So I want to talk about your personal story. You were once a volunteer poll worker.
MT: Yeah, so I've always been interested and involved in politics. I started off as soon as I turned 18 and registered to vote. I started working for local campaigns. Then, in about 2004 when I recognized that there were some problems that were going on with new voting machines in my county, I decided I needed to make that shift and actually volunteer to be a poll worker so I can see first hand how new technology's being introduced into our polling locations would have an impact in the way that people vote.
AD: Was there a sort of galvanizing moment where you saw something happening with elections, cybersecurity or voting machines where you sort of said, "Oh, man, I got to really pay attention to this"?
MT: For me, it was that moment, just like with most people where we saw the impact during the 2000 election where ballots themselves could have a major influence on the election. We seen those pictures of the hanging chads being inspected and then talked about. So, after that, electronic voting machines were put into place across the country, and from the start they were having problems. That's when I decided, "Okay, I have a technology background, I understand this stuff. I'm pretty good with people, I understand the way that elections are run. Let me see if I can try to help out, at least in my own county, my own backyard, to see if there can be a better way to use this equipment because so many of the volunteers that we have are older. They're dedicated, but they just don't have that level of comfort with new technologies when it comes to new machines being put in place and having voters change the way they cast their ballot."
AD: There's that stereotype of the poll volunteers in most places being this older person, maybe usually an older woman whose very well-intentioned, been in the community a long time, maybe not living at the cutting edge of technology with the latest greatest smart phone. How accurate is that stereotype?
MT: It's an accurate stereotype. There's nothing wrong with it because there is that level of expertise in the voting process, that is so valuable. The challenge is that when so many new pieces of equipment and new procedures are put into place, it can be difficult to translate to an older generation when it comes to being able to get them comfortable and up to speed to the point where they can exude a level of confidence that is translatable to the voters. The last thing you want is to have a voter have a little bit of difficulty when they're trying to cast their ballot, and then the person whose supposed to help them doesn't feel comfortable even providing that help, and they themselves need help.
AD: Walk us through a typical day. What are the tasks that end up in your lap when you're trying to help people?
MT: Election Day is one of the longest days I think that anyone can have in any sort of a working capacity. It really comes down to throughout the day making sure that the machines are working. That, in itself, can be a challenge. If a voter is having a difficult time understanding how to cast a vote, or maybe how to verify their vote, they might call for some assistance. There might also be some legitimate breakdowns of the equipment. If there's a problem with the power cord or there's some other sort of connectivity issue, that needs to be diagnosed there on the spot using the training materials that are available. And then, if necessary, calling the headquarters to find out if there's someone else that can come out and provide that additional level of technical support.
AD: It's sounds like it's almost like when your copier machine breaks down at work. Is it plugged in, is it turned on? Or when the printer doesn't work? There's some part of this that is just getting this old machine to work.
MT: That's exactly it. It's an old joke, but it's a true joke, the first question that any good tech support agent will ask is, "Is it plugged in?" We actually heard about that over this most recent 2018 midterm election, where the power cords didn't make it into the box so they weren't there at the polling location. It seems pretty basic, but sometimes it really does come down to very simple questions and simple fixes.
AD: Has there been particularly frustrating or absurd examples you've seen out in the field or heard of? What were the reasons behind why some systems — voting systems — didn't work?
MT: New York was probably the biggest and clearest example of what happens when the machines themselves don't work. There were cases at some polling locations that due to some high humidity the ballot paper itself was so swollen it was actually jamming up the voting machines. That's a case where, you know, we probably should be able to expect there's going to be some high humidity in some places, so that shouldn't be an issue. But it also highlighted the issue that in New York they require a certain ballot style where every single contest needs to be fully visible to the voter. It turned out that they actually had an oversized ballot. I believe it was 31 inches long, which to me seems like poor design coupled with iffy machinery and an unusual weather event made it for a perfect storm of jamming voting machines causing long lines and resulting in low voter confidence.
AD: It's funny because there's this interesting combination of people fearing outside interference, foreign interference — these very dramatic international global stakes. And then at the other end, this very, very, "Is it plugged in? Did the paper jam? Did you push the right button?" This very, very almost mundane set of problems. Yet, they're connected. They both are part of the reasons people have such strong feelings about access to voting now.
MT: Right. The local election officials who are in charge of running their elections, that are really caught in the middle because they know for a fact that there is no such thing as a perfect election. There will always be some issues that pop up. Some that are expected, some that are unexpected, but they need to be planned for. They're really good about having backup plans, but they also need to be aware of the fact that they can be targeted by a nation state actor, or even a domestic actor interested in changing the results or simply interfering with the election process. We are really putting a lot of pressure, and a lot of expectation on those local officials to basically have contingency plans for everything from a missing power cord to a sustained attack from a world power.
AD: Now we've all heard stories of problems in the election process, in the vote counting process. What tends to be the communities that are most effected? Who are some of the people who bear the brunt of the problems in the system?
MT: Well unfortunately, I think they are going to be those traditional communities that have seen voter suppression tactics used in the past, and I think this is one area where it's almost outside of the bounds of the technology specifically. The technology is just a tool. The same technology that can be used to empower voters can also be used to break down the ability for voters to be able to make sure that their vote counts correctly. That's where it goes beyond a technology policy discussion; it's actually a social discussion. That's why my work is focused on making sure elections are operating not only correctly, but securely, so that way policy makers and community stakeholders can have those really tough discussions about, "How do we address some of these historic voter suppression efforts to make sure voting is fair for everybody?" I'm particularly interested in some of those minority communities in urban areas, as well as rural voters, and even tribal communities that have their own elections to run that may not get the attention from outside organizations that might be useful for them to have.
AD: We look at something like the Georgia election here in the U.S., which was particularly contentious on this. There is a long history of voter disenfranchisement there, and that carries into the current narrative. How much of that story do you think is about the classic, as you say, social causes, which is, "Okay, there are these black and brown communities that people are trying to disenfranchise, or suppress the vote." And how much of that is infrastructural, where just the physical infrastructure and technology of voting machines is part of the obstacle?
MT: They certainly go hand in hand, and I think in the case of Georgia, there were some social pressures that were taking advantage of infrastructural weaknesses. What we don't see in Georgia are voter verified paper audit trails. These electronic machines don't have a paper trail that people can go back and actually perform an audit on. That's a very convenient way to not be able to have a higher level of accountability that tends to work in favor of one group over another. I think as we address some of these infrastructure issues, then we'll really be able to get down to the difficult discussion of addressing the social issues. When it comes to somewhat controversial infrastructure issues like voter IDs and voter registration databases being cleaned up, I tend to err on the side of, "Let's make sure we have accurate information in these databases." because I believe that that is an empowering tool to be able to have a state official and a local official say, "Yes, we are absolutely certain that we have minimized voter fraud, because we want to make sure everyone in our community votes, but that they only vote once."
AD: We're paying a lot of attention to being able to have voting infrastructure that we can trust, but what's the scope and scale of the problem? In any given state, take a state like Georgia where everybody is looking and paying attention right now, how many jurisdictions do we think there is an issue with trust in the technical infrastructure of voting? Is it most of them? Is it just a handful? Do we know?
MT: I think it's challenging to pin down a number because voter confidence is hard to measure. You certainly will hear about it when people don't have confidence in the process, and I think it's just like any other infrastructure, no one ever calls up the city council and says, "Man, I really enjoyed driving on that road. It's nice and smooth." People complain when there are the potholes. I think what we're seeing now is that people are able to voice their concern very quickly, especially using social media, whenever they run into any kind of an issue on Election Day. The majority of Americans are using old equipment and I think it's really up to the states to make sure they are adequately funding the maintenance and replacement of equipment before it gets too old. We shouldn't be using voting machines that are so old that they're breaking down on Election Day. We need to get ahead of the problem with greater focus on making sure that this equipment is purchased, maintained, and updated on a more regular basis. That way, states aren't looking to the federal government for these quick fixes once a decade when there's a catastrophe.
AD: Let's talk about the cost of having voting systems we can't trust. If somebody's vote isn't counted, maybe the election results are shifted. What is the price that's paid by an individual, by a community, when their voice isn't heard?
MT: Disenfranchisement. It's quite simple. It comes down to what does it mean to have a level of confidence that you are actually being represented at all levels of government. If an individual or a group in a community doesn't feel like they're bring represented, then they're not going to trust the services that they receive. They're going to know that somehow their perspective isn't being recognized and that their needs aren't being met. It's so difficult to come back from a situation where someone feels like they are not being represented. That's why, again, my goal is to make sure that people have a high level of confidence in the operational side of the voting process, so that way they can have those discussions with representatives and feel like the social side is being addressed.
The way that I see it is that we should be moving toward the point where we want more people to vote. I don't think that we're going to get to a point where we can have Internet or mobile-based voting any time soon, but it's going to happen eventually. In 10 to 15 years, are we putting the policies in place, are we putting the technologies in place, that would be able to handle, potentially doubling voter turnout? And that can be very impactful for groups that have traditionally not seen high levels of voter turnout in their communities.
AD: When you talk about, we have to build confidence in the infrastructure in order to be able to tackle the other social issues around voting access, how does your work tie to that? How does the work you do day to day help us fix these problems?
MT: At CDT, we're focused on making sure that local election officials have the cybersecurity training that they need. The idea that local election officials are defending themselves appropriately by using techniques like two-factor authentication, or password managers, so that way they're not influenced by any malicious actors. That ensures that voters are actually protected as well, because if a local election official has the voting database on their laptop and they take that laptop to the coffee shop and go on the open Wi-Fi network and that information is stolen, the voters are put at risk. I think that any time there are any security lapses that can be exploited, they need to be addressed.
Local election officials are really the ones that should be getting the majority of not only the awareness, but also the training to prevent some of those vulnerabilities from happening, not only on those internal databases, but also on the voting machines themselves. If they can show, "Yes, they are aware of these potential issues, but they put up additional defenses." Then, voters will naturally be more confident in the process and it will be less likely that stories of vote changing or voter fraud will be able to spread as quickly because there will be accurate information out there to dispel it.
AD: If I'm an individual voter, and I'm concerned about the trustworthiness of voting in my local precinct, what are the things I can do? Who should I reach out to?
MT: Definitely reach out to your local election official and find out what their plan is. It should be pretty straightforward to get an answer from a local election official about the equipment that's used and the processes that are put in place to make sure that everyone has access to their polling location on Election Day, and even before Election Day. There are options for people to be able to vote by mail, or even vote early so that way they don't have to show up at a polling location on Election Day in some of those communities, and they can actually verify that their mailed in ballot was received correctly.
AD: That sounds like good advice for all of us to follow through on. Maurice, thank you for joining us on Function.
MT: Thank you very much, Anil. I appreciate it.
AD: That's it for this episode of Function. Next week we are going to take a break for the holidays, but don't worry we are going to be back with a brand new episode on New Year's Eve, just in time for your year-end giving. We're going to talk about apps that help you be your most generous and charitable and tax-deductible self. We're talking to the developers behind apps that help the people in the most need: The Human Utility and Appolition.
Function is produced by Bridget Armstrong; our associate producer is Maurice Cherry. Nishat Kurwa is the Executive Producer of audio of the Vox Media and Podcast Network. Our engineers are Srinivas Ramamurthy and Jarrett Floyd. Our theme music was composed by Brandon McFarland and big thanks to the team at Glitch.
You can follow me on Twitter at @AnilDash, and you find the show at glitch.com/function. You'll want to check it out: there's full show notes, transcripts, and even little apps that are related to each episode.
If you're liking what you're hearing on Function, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts and tell a friend to check us out. It really does help. Thank you for doing so. And do remember to subscribe to Function, wherever you listen to podcasts.