In 2020, millions of Americans will cast votes in local, state, and federal elections. Voters no longer use outdated processes to cast ballots by pulling a mechanical lever or punching holes in a card, according to the Verified Voting Foundation. Instead, computers record or tally nearly every vote cast in the United States.
Yet many scientists contend that some computerized voting systems currently in use are fundamentally unreliable and insecure.
“Computerized voting systems should be backed up by paper ballots,” said the leadership of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Section on Social, Economic, and Political Sciences, one of AAAS' two dozen disciplinary sections, in a March 2018 statement. The section draws experts from a cross-section of fields that study the electoral processes, and many of them “have long noted the vulnerability of computerized voting systems to breakdowns, subversive manipulation, and unintended errors.”
The AAAS Section on Information, Computing, and Communication leadership also issued a statement in conjunction with the social scientists, calling for voting systems to enshrine “a comprehensive legal framework” to ensure electronic voting systems are equipped with paper ballots that can verify the outcome and ensure an election's integrity.
Last year, AAAS launched the Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues—also known as the EPI Center—which is now slated to deliver a body of scientific evidence on voting integrity to policymakers and election officials across the country as they prepare for the 2020 elections.
The center's mission is to bring clear, concise, and nonpartisan information to decision-makers as they act on pressing public issues. The center has selected voting technology and security as its first endeavor.
“The promise of the EPI Center is not simply to study and publish policy recommendations but to see that scientific evidence is incorporated into decision-making,” said Rush Holt, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals.
The EPI Center's work begins with gathering and distilling the vast body of evidence that can be drawn from a wide range of scientific fields, including computer science, social science, statistics, cryptology, and cybersecurity. It is consulting reports such as the 2018 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine's “Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy.”
Such groundwork comes at a pivotal time when election officials across the country are making choices about what voting systems to buy before the 2020 elections. “There is abundant scientific evidence from computer scientists, statisticians, and security experts that should inform these decisions,” said Michael D. Fernandez, the director of the EPI Center. “The American people deserve to know that when they vote their votes have been correctly recorded and counted.”
The center also is in regular contact with scientific experts working on election technology and security issues and monitoring the body of emerging research to spur new conversations and inform events like the AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy held over two days beginning on May 2.
“We have the luxury of tapping into the AAAS network,” said Fernandez.
The forum examined scientific evidence that underpins the most secure computerized voting systems, which generate backup paper ballots. Such systems permit a risk-limiting audit, which is “a well-designed statistical method to examine a sample of the paper ballots and determine with high statistical confidence that the outcome claimed by the computers is actually consistent with what voters actually marked on the paper,” said Andrew Appel, a Princeton University professor of computer science, during the forum.
Audits are “the premier technology for telling whether the votes cast are consistent with the outcome,” added Ron Rivest, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
With local officials in 254 jurisdictions in 37 states planning to purchase new voting equipment in the near future, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, the EPI Center is initiating conversations with policy-makers and state and local election officials to ensure they have the scientific evidence needed to make the decisions to govern how voters will cast their ballots in 2020.
The EPI Center is concentrating its efforts on the state and local level where changes are enacted, with a particular focus on the 11 states that use computerized voting systems that lack paper trails. The center is taking a targeted approach, engaging in one-on-one conversations with local voting authorities whenever possible. To avoid entering political debates, the center will not endorse specific legislative proposals or particular voting machines.
The center is sensitive to the multitude of concerns election officials face, including having to juggle security issues, funding constraints, and voter accessibility needs all at the same time, said Kathryn McGrath, communications director at the EPI Center. “We want to help local officials,” she said.
The center plans to make inroads in the many states considering implementing risk-limiting audits on a regular basis. Such audits would be conducted regularly, not just when an election is too close to call. Colorado and Rhode Island are currently the only states that will require risk-limiting audits statewide by 2020, while several other states are piloting such audits or considering legislation to put them in place.
“When our election systems have been under attack, election officials are very concerned about restoring and keeping faith and confidence in the system, and risk-limiting audits are an answer,” said McGrath.
The center also will bring evidence to emerging voting technology issues that will have implications beyond the 2020 elections, such as online voting. Although public interest in voting by computer or mobile phone is rising, the expert consensus states that online voting is unable to preserve voter privacy or protect the integrity of the system from breaches.
“Voting technology will continue to evolve, creating new risks and new opportunities,” said Fernandez. “Supporting decision-makers with the best available evidence as they make choices on how to administer elections and how to ensure the integrity of the results will be more important than ever.”
A version of this article was published in AAAS News & Notes in the June 28, 2019 issue of Science.