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AAAS EPI Center Tackles the Science of Voting Security

AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues (EPI Center
AAAS EPI Center staff. Image by Juliet Antipolo, AAAS.

It’s one thing to have a mission to bring the best available science into policy discussions. Delivering tangible results, now that’s the real challenge. Yet hardly one year since its official launch, the AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues (EPI) is making headway on a timely topic: voting security. 

Paperless electronic voting machines might sound like modern technology, but scientists overwhelmingly agree that “direct recording electronic” (DRE) voting machines are insecure and should not be used. They are vulnerable to glitches and coding errors, in addition to malicious hacking. With no paper record, there is no way to independently verify if a voter’s choices were accurately recorded and counted.

“The short version is: computer experts tell you to use paper,” said Michael Fernandez, the EPI Center director.

To help boost awareness, the four-person EPI Center has reached out to more than 700 officials at the state and local level to highlight the latest science on this topic. Raising awareness about the science of voting technology has been ambitious for the new center, given how much local outreach is required. Selecting voting equipment is usually decided at the state or county level. While numerous states have ditched the insecure systems in recent years, in 2019, counties in 10 states either continue to use machines that do not provide a paper record or buy brand new paperless equipment.

The goal, Fernandez stressed, is not to tell officials what specific voting equipment they should invest in, but rather ensure officials have considered the evidence from the scientific community when making their decisions.

Step one is simply making sure officials are aware the evidence exists, according to Fernandez. For example, the National Academy of Sciences conducted an in-depth analysis of America’s voting system and technologies; the resulting 160-page report was published in 2018.

“We have yet to find a local election official who has heard of this report,” said Kathryn McGrath, the EPI Center communications director.

Step two for the EPI Center is presenting information in the most useful and relevant way for local officials. This is EPI’s area of expertise. They distilled the NAS report findings down to the most essential highlights, which they presented in letters to officials. Those letters were followed up with invitations to discuss the issue further.

The approach is working.

For example, in Blount County, Tennessee, election commissioners considering new election equipment specifically referenced the EPI Center’s letter and asked questions about security during a September hearing.

In Kansas, where a few counties have not yet replaced paperless machines, EPI reached out to officials and journalists. The Topeka Capitol-Journal covered the story, which was picked up by the Associated Press and several other news outlets across the country. The Topeka Capitol-Journal editorial board called for counties to stop using DREs, and the state’s top election official was interviewed on television about the issue, including specific questions about EPI’s letter.

“I feel like people heard what we are saying and have started to incorporate that into their thinking and into the way they are talking about it publicly,” Fernandez said.

Some officials have shared with EPI Center that they don’t think hacking is a concern because their machines are not connected to the Internet. In response, the EPI team highlights incidents in which voting machines were inadvertently connected to the Internet as well as research showing how machines are still vulnerable because they must be reprogrammed for each election with the appropriate ballots. Bugs or coding errors could also lead to inaccurate vote tallies. With no paper trail, there is no way to check if the machine is misbehaving, regardless of if it is on purpose or by accident.

Speaking with local officials about their unique challenges on the ground has been enlightening, Fernandez said. For example, the team called representatives in all 21 counties in New Jersey, many of which have used paperless voting for over a decade. The state has since mandated paper records, but never set a deadline for counties to implement the requirement and most haven’t yet. Officials explained that, along with lack of funding, they don’t have dedicated space to securely store paper ballots.

In some discussions, the EPI team finds an effective message is presenting a challenging scenario for any election official: a closely contested election requiring a recount. Paperless machines have no way to independently audit or recount votes. In order to confidently certify an election result, officials should be able to audit votes, either with hand-marked ballots or electronically marked ballots that were then printed and scanned by separate machines.

Ultimately, it is clear officials want secure elections, Fernandez said. But even when a few still opt for paperless machines, the evidence about voting security has been considered.

“It has spurred conversations that wouldn’t have happened otherwise and brought the scientific evidence into the policy debate, which is exactly what our mission is,” Fernandez said.

The security of the 2020 election is front and center, but EPI plans to continue working on other aspects of this topic well beyond that, such as the most effective way to audit elections, and future voting technologies.  

 

How AAAS Members can help

Since voting security is an issue that touches every citizen, the EPI Center is seeking AAAS Members to help raise awareness about these issues in their communities. Members can write or co-author letters to the editor of their local papers. If any member would like to get involved, please contact the center by the online form, or email epicenter@aaas.org.

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