Hello World

By Julia Angwin

Elections, Technology, and Democracy’s Frailty





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This Week
Hello, friends, 
With Nov. 3 fast-approaching, we are in the midst of a national conversation about how to successfully hold a presidential election during a pandemic. 
The president has been campaigning against voting by mail, falsely claiming that mail-in ballots are susceptible to fraud while also encouraging his loyal followers to vote twice—both by mail and in person—which is illegal
Still, millions of voters will likely cast their ballots the way they usually have, using a voting machine at a polling station. And like all technology, those machines are fallible. During this year’s presidential primaries, for instance, we saw “coding mishaps” in Iowa, “broken machines” in Dallas and New York, and “glitches” in L.A.; in parts of Georgia, voters waited as long as eight hours during the June 9 primary as poll workers wrestled with new voting equipment.
The Markup investigative reporter Adrianne Jeffries, inspired by long lines and down machines at her own polling place when she voted in 2018, wanted to know what exactly causes so many machine mishaps. She found that although antiquated technology can be the culprit, problems were just as likely to be human as software-related.
Consider one Michigan primary polling place, where workers were cooking food throughout the long election day. 
“They had one too many Crock-Pots, and they killed the precinct’s power just because it blew a circuit,” Matt Bernhard, an election security researcher, told Adrianne. 
Or consider Georgia, where Democrats allege in a lawsuit filed last month in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia that incredibly long lines at polling places in the state’s June primary elections effectively denied state residents their constitutional right to vote. 
The cause of the long lines? Sure, some machines broke. But largely, the lawsuit alleges, the lines result from years of underfunding, understaffing, undertraining, and consolidating polling places into fewer locations. The technical difficulties were largely minor: The internet went out, the printers had no paper, there weren’t enough electrical outlets.
Additionally, the voting process was “dizzying” in its complexity, the lawsuit alleges. It worked as follows:
  • Voters checked in with a poll worker who operated an electronic pollbook on a digital tablet.
  • The poll worker confirmed the voter’s identity.
  • The pollbook programmed a microchipped card with the voter’s information.
  • The voter took the card to a touch screen tablet and inserted it into a reader to display the voter’s ballot. 
  • The voter then used the touch screen to cast his or her vote. 
  • The voter then printed the ballot from a printer next to the tablet.
  • The voter then dropped off the printed ballot at a digital scanner.
Add into this stew a staff of temporary poll workers who, because of the pandemic, often had not completed in-person training or touched the machines before showing up on election day.
Not surprisingly, problems cascaded, the lawsuit alleges: “Electronic poll books were in short supply and frequently did not work. Without paper pollbook backups, poll workers could not call up voters’ registration information, and therefore could not create microchipped cards for voters. Touchscreens displaying ballots faded to black or unreadable screens, and they crashed repeatedly, requiring constant rebooting. Printers jammed; the new machines required too much power in some polling locations causing outages; and most polling locations only had a single ballot scanner.”
In other words, it was exactly what you would expect from launching a new process—and new machines—without testing, training, or having a backup plan. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on Sept. 9. 
Yes, Georgia experienced a technology failure, but it was also a failure of democratic institutions. Tina Barton, the city clerk and elections administrator for Rochester Hills, Mich., told Adrianne that the key to successful elections is to always have a backup plan (in her case, paper ballots and a lockbox).
“Voting systems aren’t perfect, and that’s why there’s always a plan B, right?” she said.
Indeed, planning for catastrophe is a good idea not only for elections and new technology—but also for most everything in our topsy-turvy world. 
As always, thanks for reading.
Julia Angwin
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