E-voting has arrived.
Let’s take a good look at it from the fundamental concept that free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our great republic.
People worry about hackers and foreign governments meddling in our elections. Interference in our elections here in the United States of America goes way beyond foreign influences. Homegrown election shenanigans have been going on long before the term “cyber-security” was coined.
A LITTLE HISTORY
In colonial times, only white, male property owners could vote. “Rhode Islandism” was a practice where land was deeded to non-property owners, votes were taken, “compensation” was made, and land returned to the original owner.
Following the Civil War, voter fraud was achieved through a number of illegal methods to block free and fair elections. Negro and low-income voters were intimidated with violence, literacy tests, and poll taxes (a voter registration tax).
“Cooping” was a practice used by the Tammany Hall* political machine in New York City. Men were dragged off the streets, kept in a basement, plied with alcohol and food, then dragged semi-conscious to the polls to vote. My hometown of Chicago is well known for dead people voting.
All kinds of devices have been invented to skew election results. “Stuffer” ballot boxes had false sides and bottoms stuffed ahead of time with party ticket ballots that were counted with legitimate ballots. Vote interference is nothing new. What is new are the technologies for the process of voting.
A TEENY LITTLE BIT MORE HISTORY
In Revolutionary times, people voted by voice, usually at events like fairs. In the 1800’s, a publicly displayed ballot was introduced on which the voter publicly signed his name under a preferred candidate’s name. As elections grew larger, ballots were printed and distributed by parties, collected and dropped into a ballot box. No privacy for the voter in these methods.
Professor Joshua A. Douglas of the University of Kentucky College writes, “Parties would print their ballots in bright colors, and voters would walk to the polling site holding the ballot high above their heads to show the vote buyers that the voters were being faithful in bringing that party’s ballot to the polls. Parties would then pay off the voters.” As voters traveled to the polls, they were inundated with “party ticket peddlers” who were attempting to either buy their votes or intimidate them from continuing on to the polling place.
Elizabeth King for Time, Inc. writes, “After the Civil War, the term “vest-pocket” voting emerged to refer to people who kept their ballots in their pockets rather than displaying them publicly on the way to a polling place.”
THE EMERGENCE OF PRIVACY IN VOTING
In 1856, Australia introduced the secret ballot. According to Wikipedia, this was an effort to forestall “attempts to influence the voter by intimidation, blackmailing, and potential vote buying.” Douglas writes, “In 1888, Louisville, Kentucky, adopted the secret ballot to reduce voter fraud and intimidation. The city was one of the first jurisdictions in the United States to adopt the secret ballot. The Louisville law also prohibited anyone but voters or candidates from coming within 50 feet of the voting booth and forbade candidates or their agents who came inside the 50-foot zone from persuading, influencing, or intimidating a voter as to the voter’s selection.”
Great change came in 1898 when Jacob Myers and Alfred Gillespie’s voting machine began a new era of technology. The Automatic Voting Machine Company perfected the machine and dominated the industry until 1983. Automatically recording and tabulating votes, the machine was supposed to prevent people from voting more than once or monkeying with the results. The privacy curtain surrounding the machine was originally meant to protect poor, working class, and immigrant voters from intimidation, which is why it was originally called “The Poor Man’s Voting Machine.”
AND NOW…THE FUTURE IS HERE!
From lever to punch cards to the computer…voting machinery has evolved with the times. Electronic voting machines have arrived. Let’s look at the pros and cons.
PRO: It is hoped electronic voting will result in larger voter turnouts by making voting more accessible, especially to shut-ins and people in more remote areas. Sheila Nix, a Democratic political strategist, says “If you look at the congressional primaries, the voter turnout rate can be as low as 11 percent…. With gerrymandering, it means a very few people are electing members of Congress.” E-voting would make it much easier for military and overseas voters to register and vote. Younger voters are predicted to use e-voting in larger numbers.
CON: Oh, boy! No one believes there is an un-hackable program. “Venturing into the internet does increase risk in a way that can’t adequately be protected at this juncture, given the state of technology,” said Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan organization that promotes the responsible use of technology in elections. A 2018 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine warned, “Currently, no known technology can guarantee the secrecy, security, and verifiability of a marked ballot transmitted over the Internet.”
Transparency is another big problem in e-voting. Independent technical vetting of voting software is crucial, but developers do not want to reveal their proprietary source codes and be copied. J. Alex Haldeman, a University of Michigan election security expert, says, “Voting securely online requires solving some of the most challenging problems in computer security. You have to remotely authenticate people to make sure they are who they say they are. You have to secure the voter device, their phone or computer, from malware. You have to secure the servers [that hold voter and ballot information] from some of the world’s most sophisticated adversaries, like hostile foreign nations.”
There are privacy issues where e-votes could be traced to their originators; malfunction of machines; electrical blackouts, corruption of data, government shutting down the internet, etc.
FREE, FAIR, AND SAFE
We have entered uncharted waters. Beware the law of unintended consequences! Breaches and frauds are endemic on the internet. At a time when election results are based on the thinnest of margins, accuracy is crucial. Each state will chart its own course as there is no national jurisdiction in the voting process. We just saw what happened to Iowa as a result of technology problems…fair warning.
The right to vote has been paid for in blood and treasure from the first shots at The Old North Bridge in Concord, MA, to the Mud March of the Suffragettes, to the Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery.
Our vote and our belief in the integrity of our vote are sacred cornerstones of our beautiful United States of America. While there is no stopping the electronic future ahead of us—heck, we may love it—we need to be mindful of, and protective toward, a free, fair, and safe process.
Vamos a ver!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Tammany Hall was a New York City political organization that endured for nearly two centuries. Formed in 1789 in opposition to the Federalist Party, its leadership often mirrored that of the local Democratic Party’s executive committee. Although its popularity stemmed from a willingness to help the city’s poor and immigrant populations, Tammany Hall became known for charges of corruption levied against leaders such as William M. “Boss” Tweed. Its power waned during the tenure of New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia (1934-1945), and the organization was rendered extinct after John V. Lindsay took office in 1966.