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Accurate Elections Require Science-Based Methods

Evidence-Based Policy and Voting Technology panel at the 2019 AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy
Marian Schneider, Ron Rivest and Andrew Appel participate in a May 3 panel on evidence-based policy and voting technology. |

Paper voting systems that can be audited are the best way to ensure the accuracy of elections, but in many jurisdictions in the United States, recounting cast ballots is not possible, according to experts at the 44th annual AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy.

Speaking at a May 3 panel at the American Association for the Advancement of Science headquarters, in Washington, D.C.  two computer scientists and a former election policy adviser called for science to inform the policies that govern voting technologies and election oversight.

“People need to know that when they vote, their votes have been correctly recorded and counted, and that without that basic trust, there can be no confidence in our election system,” said moderator Michael D. Fernandez, director of AAAS’ Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues, a new initiative to deliver scientific evidence to local, state and federal policymakers to inform their decision-making. The EPI Center has selected voting technology and security as its first area of focus. “The evidence, both from computer science and behavioral science, tells us that the more complex the system is, the more removed the voter is from their ballot through an electronic interface, the greater the risk.”

Elections in the United States are complex, which presents greater risk. Election ballots in the U.S. often include dozens of contests or propositions, making it challenging to count votes by hand. Computers are used to tally nearly every vote cast in the U.S., according to Andrew Appel, professor of computer science at Princeton University.  

It is necessary to have a backup in place, he added, to detect whether computers have miscounted votes, whether due to fraudulently installed software or accidental bugs.

Yet many jurisdictions have no way to check a ballot manually after it is cast, said Marian Schneider, president of the Verified Voting Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by computer scientists focused on accurate and verifiable elections.

“The purpose of an election is not only to accurately report the winner but to produce evidence that that winner is correct,” said Ron Rivest, professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “And to make that evidence tangible and durable and believable, it really needs to be in something other than bits.”

EPI Center Director Michael Fernandez |

The best way to retain evidence of cast ballots is for voters to submit a paper ballot that can be examined post-election if needed to ensure votes are cast as intended, collected as cast and counted as intended, Rivest said. That way, election officials can conduct audits, which offer “the premier technology for telling whether the votes cast are consistent with the reported outcome,” Rivest said.

There are several methods for auditing results, including a ballot-polling audit, which examines random ballots by hand, and the more efficient ballot-comparison audit, which checks random paper ballots against their electronic records, Rivest said. Such methods provide a high statistical confidence that reported results are accurate, Appel added.

Since the 2016 elections, which raised anew questions about election cybersecurity, science has played a role in influencing policies to protect election results, informing efforts to reducing vulnerabilities in databases, protect internet-based applications and monitor statewide networks, Schneider said. Significant investment in research and development for voting systems is beginning to take place, including a $10 million contract for Department of Defense to develop secure hardware specifically for elections, she said.

Some jurisdictions are replacing older voting systems, but there remains much work to be done to protect election accuracy and security with science-backed solutions, Schneider said.

Audit laws need to be strengthened and elections need adequate funding to ensure protective measures can be put into place, she said.

“Our democracy deserves solutions that are grounded in science,” said Schneider.

[Associated image: Penn State/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]