February 18, 2018

Protect E-Voting — Support H.R. 811

After a long fight, we have reached the point where a major e-voting reform bill has a chance to become U.S. law. I’m referring to HR 811, sponsored by my Congressman, Rush Holt, and co-sponsored by many others. After reading the bill carefully, and discussing with students and colleagues the arguments of its supporters and critics, I am convinced that it is a very good bill that deserves our support.

The main provisions of the bill would require e-voting technologies to have a paper ballot that is (a) voter-verified, (b) privacy-preserving, and (c) durable. Paper ballots would be hand-recounted, and compared to the electronic count, at randomly-selected precincts after every election.

The most important decision in writing such a bill is which technologies should be categorically banned. The bill would allow (properly designed) optical scan systems, touch-screen systems with a suitable paper trail, and all-paper systems. Paperless touchscreens and lever machines would be banned.

Some activists have argued that the bill doesn’t go far enough. A few say that all use of computers in voting should be banned. I think that’s a mistake, because it sacrifices the security benefits computers can provide, if they’re used well.

Others argue that touch-screen voting machines should be banned even if they have good paper trails. I think that goes too far. Touchscreens can be a useful part of a good voting system, if they’re used in the right context and with a good paper trail. We shouldn’t let the worst of today’s insecure paperless touchscreens – machines that should never have been certified in the first place, and anyway would be banned by the Holt Bill for lacking a suitable paper ballot – sour us on the better uses of touchscreens that are possible.

One of the best parts of the bill is its random audit requirement, which selects 3% of precincts (or more in close races) at which the paper ballots will be hand counted and compared to the electronic records. This serves two useful purposes: detecting error or fraud that might have affected the election result, and providing a routine quality-control check on the vote-counting process. This part of the bill reflects a balance between the states’ freedom to run their own elections and the national interest in sound election management.

On the whole this is a good, strong bill. I support it, and I urge you to support it too.