Russian attacks on American democracy in 2016, carried out over the internet, have triggered a national debate over the use of technology in the United States’ upcoming 2020 elections.
But some of the best ways to beef up the security of the voting process and fight off future cyber-attacks could have an unintended consequence: limiting access to the vote for people with disabilities.
Voting on hand-marked paper ballots – which by definition can’t be hacked – combined with robust audits of how the elections were carried out and how the votes were counted is widely seen as the most secure way to run an election.
Cybersecurity experts want hand-marked paper ballot systems, but disability rights advocates want voting machines to be used for all voters, as they are best for disabled access.
The two groups have been butting heads over this since the Help America Vote Act (Hava) of 2002, which gave states $3.9bn to buy new voting technology and required every polling place have at least one accessible voting machine. Rather than operate parallel systems – and since it was on the federal dime – many county and state governments decided to purchase voting machines to be used by all voters – something now seen as a security weakness.
Noel Runyan is one of the few people who sits at the crossroads of this debate. He has 50 years of experience designing accessible systems and is both a computer scientist and disabled. He was dragged into this debate, he said, because there were so few other people who had a stake in both fields.
Voting machines for all is clearly not the right position, Runyan said. But neither is the universal requirement for hand-marked paper ballots.
“The [Americans with Disabilities Act], Hava and decency require that we allow disabled people to vote and have accessible voting systems,” Runyan said.
Yet Runyan also believes the voting machines on the market today are “garbage”. They neither provide any real sense of security against physical or cyber-attacks that could alter an election, nor do they have good user interfaces for voters regardless of disability status.
For disability rights advocates like Jim Dickson, who helped craft Hava and now works with the National Council on Independent Living to expand voting rights for people with disabilities, the need for accessibility outweighs the concern over security.
“If poll workers know that everybody is going to have to use the machine, they’re going to know how to operate it,” Dickson said. “They’re going to be familiar with it. It’s not going to be a strange thing over there in the corner.”
Election security advocates like Susan Greenhalgh, policy director for the National Election Defense Coalition, agree that accessibility is a necessary part of elections, though not at the cost of security.
More important than universal use of voting machines, Greenhalgh said, is making more polling places accessible to people with motor impairments. Once voters are inside, voting machines should be used sparingly and only for those who need them.
“There needs to be ways to provide reasonable accommodations using technology to the best of our ability today to make voting accessible to all voters and not introduce the opportunity for a national security crisis in our elections system,” Greenhalgh said.
“It’s not a game. This is a really serious problem we’re facing for the security of our elections systems,” she added.
The issue is rapidly coming to a head. Old voting systems are being decertified across the country due to widespread security concerns, forcing elections officials to make a decision on which system to use next. Runyan advises against the urge to let accessibility or security needs push the buying of another round of bad systems. Better voting technology is, in theory, only a few years down the road, but the upcoming 2020 presidential election makes long-term thinking hard to come by.
“Don’t buy crummy machines. Wait, if you can. Lease, don’t buy, if you can,” Runyan said.
Voters want secure elections in 2020, and only moderate progress is being made at state and local levels, while Congress is deadlocked over elections security legislation. At the same time, voters with disabilities want to preserve and expand their access to the vote, a battle they have been fighting since at least the 1940s.
It looks like an unsolvable dilemma: American elections will neither be fully secure nor fully accessible by 2020.
But the debate over security versus accessibility presents a false dichotomy, according to Eddie Perez, the global director of technology development at the Open Source Election Technology Institute, a Silicon Valley not-for-profit working to increase the security and integrity of election technology. He believes a system can be worked out that pleases both sides.
“You need to add in all of the variables including cost, operations, everything associated with implementations in all of their complexity, and only by looking at all of the tradeoffs in voting technology are we going to come to a reasonable assessment of which looks like a more or less optimal system,” Perez said.
Both Runyan and Perez also concluded that the best answer, for now, is compromise. One way would be to increase the number of required disability-accessible voting machines per precinct and allow anyone the option of voting on them – while still using hand-marked paper ballots for a majority of voters.
But until the security and disability rights groups can agree on basic priorities, both are likely to remain unsatisfied with an election system that fails to meet either party’s needs – for elections in 2020 and beyond.