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Let’s Not Let Silicon Valley Ruin the Ballot Box

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Brian Kemp casts his ballot in Winterville, Georgia.

By John Bazemore/AP/REX/Shutterstock.

On Tuesday afternoon, Georgia’s secretary of state and Republican candidate for governor, Brian Kemp, walked into a Winterville, Georgia, polling location to cast a vote for, presumably, himself. A poll worker handed the 55-year-old Republican an “access card” containing an electronic copy of the midterm ballot. Kemp walked over to a voting booth and placed that access card into a touchscreen voting machine to register the ballot. But, as it turned out, Kemp encountered a technological glitch, which prevented the machine from counting his vote.

This was awkward. It was Kemp’s job, after all, to help people in his state vote. So after a minute of confusion, he returned the card to a poll worker, received a new working card, and ably cast his vote.

Of course, others in Georgia—many in the predominantly African-American and lower-income districts that favored Kemp’s opponent, Stacey Abrams—weren’t so lucky. Social media and cable news were overwhelmed with images of people who had been waiting in blocks-long lines to cast their ballots after voting machines at their appointed precincts malfunctioned. Some had crashed. Others couldn’t be started. And some simply didn’t work because poll workers were not supplied power cords to operate them. It was, as you can imagine, chaos. It turned out that Kemp’s voting issue stemmed from an access card that, according to news reports, was incompletely programmed by a poll worker.

Alternatively, at traditional polling stations, where people use paper ballots, there were few issues. Paper ballots, for all their Luddite detractions, don’t need extension cords. And yet, in Silicon Valley, many are clamoring to eradicate them altogether in favor of more technologically sophisticated options. “As we head to the polls on Tues, hopefully having to go somewhere to vote soon becomes a thing of the past,” wrote Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist and proponent of mobile voting. “Mobile voting can make democracy much safer and make it a lot easier for people to vote.” Others echoed his sentiment. “I fear that too many will see the long lines and skip voting,” wrote Fast Company’s Marcus Baram on Twitter. “There needs to be secure mobile voting, with email confirmation and a paper record printed at the Board of Elections.”

Silicon Valley evangelists will undoubtedly point to West Virginia, where almost 140 mountaineers living abroad in 29 countries cast their election ballots in a pilot program that allowed them to vote on their phones using a variety of security features, including facial-recognition technology and blockchain. But we should take pause before jumping headfirst into the let’s-vote-by-app argument. In August, my colleague Maya Kosoff wrote about a company called Voatz, a mobile election-voting-software start-up that wants to let you vote from your phone. As Kosoff noted, security experts were not impressed by Voatz. “This is going to backfire,” one security professional warned. “The United States needs some form of vetting process for online voting in elections.” Another software expert called Voatz the “Theranos of voting!” And still another expert called Voatz a “horrifically bad idea.”

There are countries that utilize Internet voting, and as far as we’re aware, it works. For example, in Estonia, 24 percent of voters use the country’s Internet voting system. In 2014, France held a primary using online voting, which the country had touted as incredibly secure. But these countries also have different cultures with different levels of security, and vastly smaller populations and different regulations. In Estonia, a country with 1.3 million people, citizens have a “smart I.D. card,” which enables voter authentication. In France, journalists from Metronews found out how easy it was to breach the system when they voted several times using different names. Needless to say, the election results that year were chaotic.

There are plenty of reasons to rethink voting. First, it isn’t much fun. You have to wait in lines; sometimes, as in Georgia, interminably long ones. Elections are held on Tuesday, for a confluence of antiquated reasons that include the timing of the Sabbath, the weekly schedule of farmers’ markets, and the average speed of horse-drawn buggies. People have to leave work early or get home late. The weather can affect turnout. But perhaps the biggest reason to rethink voting is that voter turnout in the United States has been stuck at around 55 percent for presidential elections since 1972, when Richard Nixon faced off against George McGovern. Turnout for the midterms, which can be more important than a presidential election, especially when you have Donald Trump in office, is reliably even lower. At the same time, there are logistical and bureaucratic solutions that don’t require Silicon Valley capitalists to facilitate Russia’s ability to harm our election process beyond the assists that it has already received from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

There’s a saying in the security world that there are two kinds of companies: those that have been hacked and those that don’t know they have been hacked yet. And Silicon Valley companies, despite their armies of well-compensated engineers and security teams, are not strangers to this phenomenon. Just look at the insanely long list of companies that have been hacked in recent years, including Google, Facebook, and Uber. The N.S.A. has been hacked. Yahoo’s data was breached. While West Virginia’s test worked without a hitch, is that sample size compelling enough for us to really consider rolling out digitized voting across America—especially, say, in 2020, when Trump will go up against a Democrat whom Russia won’t want to win the election?

I haven’t always espoused this argument, by the way. Back in 2012, I pushed for online voting. “At a time when we can see video shot by a robot on Mars, when there are cars that can drive themselves, and when we can deposit checks on our smartphones without going to a bank, why do most people still have to go to a polling place to vote?” I wrote. I remember speaking to one expert about this topic back then, who told me, “Winston Churchill had a famous saying that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried before; you can apply the same statement to paper ballots, which are the worst form of voting, but better than all the others that have been tried before.” Now, nearly six later, after seeing all the ways in which technology has been used against us, I think the idea of moving to digital voting, to quote Mark Zuckerberg after his social network was used against us by Russia, is “just crazy.”

Credit:Vanity Fair

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