If the United States were to launch a nuclear missile tomorrow, we would use a floppy disk to initiate the process. While this may seem counter-intuitive to our hyper-technical age, there’s actually a really good reason for this: very few computers use floppy disks these days, which reduces the number of potential threats that could compromise our nuclear launch system.
That principle also applies to our elections. If we run them on modern computers, people using those same computer programs can turn them against us. If we retreat to paper ballots, there is no digital system that can compromise that specific portion of the voting process.
This isn’t just me saying this, but a report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Per Nature:
The report, released on 6 September, calls for all US elections to be conducted using such ballots by the 2020 presidential election. It comes after US intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian government backed attempts to infiltrate the United States’s election infrastructure during the 2016 presidential election. The report’s recommendations were developed by a committee whose members had experience ranging from computer science to officiating elections.
“The future of voting is one in which a clear tension must be managed,” wrote committee co-chairs Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University in New York City, and Michael McRobbie, president of Indiana University in Bloomington. “We must prevent bad actors from corrupting our electoral process while delivering the means to provide suffrage to an electorate that is growing in size and complexity.”
As someone who has enthusiastically cheered the rise of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, let me get out in front of a new argument taking root: no, elections should not be conducted on the blockchain. That’s insane. You can’t just throw the word “blockchain” at something at make it better. In fact, a blockchain is a slower version of what we normally call a database. Blockchains are wildly useful in some specific instances (like managing massive supply chains of physical and digital assets), but elections are not one of them. But again, don’t take it from me, take it from election and tech expert, Matt Blaze.
Elections are some of the most complex systems known to man, and this complexity is both an asset and a hindrance. In one sense, it makes it difficult to compromise since there are so many layers to bypass. On the other, it's difficult to uncover structural flaws since there are so many layers to parse through. The management of back-end of election systems should be left to the experts, but paper ballots should be a no-brainer for any of us. If you're still on the fence, watch how easy it is to hack our existing voting machines.
Winston Churchill famously (did not) say this very true quote about America: “The Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”
Let’s not wait until the integrity of our votes becomes compromised before doing something that every expert believes is a simple fix.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.