Public Scrutiny and Testing Needed for Electoral Technology

Public Scrutiny and Testing Needed for Electoral Technology

The Computer Corner

By Charles Miller

Appearing in the news recently were headlines like “Iowa’s disaster is shaking voters’ faith in elections,” referring to the failure of the vote reporting app used in the caucus. Following up on that, I hope that I will be able to calm at least some people’s fears.

It is important to note that the Iowa Democratic Party wisely backed up the app with paper ballots, so there is no basis for rumors that the software glitches tainted the election results. Counting paper ballots delayed the results, and that gave people time to worry. This is probably what led to a number of ridiculous conspiracy theories: Hillary ordered the app to sabotage Bernie, the Russians did it, and the list goes on. There is not a scintilla of credible reporting to confirm any of these wild accusations. From the point of view of those involved in the software industry, this was just another case of buggy software used before it was ready for prime time.

The real, lasting damage likely to come out of the Iowa debacle is greater skepticism and distrust for technology that is available to use in elections in the 21st century. A lot of good people are working to improve the integrity of elections with voting machines and electronic voting. Unfortunately, some are going about it all wrong.

A culture of secrecy cloaks the election reporting industry. The company responsible for developing the software used in the 2020 Iowa caucuses, as well as the election officials who used it, tried hard to keep it under wraps, reportedly turning down offers from others to help check the app for security vulnerabilities. We all know how that ended.

In the US there are more than 350,000 voting machines in use, equipment manufactured by companies including Diebold, Election Systems & Software, and Sequoia. These companies that make voting systems continue to cling to the hope that secrecy can prevent exposing their failings.

In addition, the process of developing new software and training users in how to use it are preparations that should not be rushed. That makes it alarming that the news media is reporting on preparations for the Nevada caucuses and saying experts are raising serious questions about an app the [Nevada] party has been feverishly assembling to replace the one scrapped after the meltdown in Iowa. “It feels like (Nevada is) making it up as they go along,” said one Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “That’s not how we need to be running an election.”

In 1914 Louis Brandeis observed that “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” The way to restore confidence in election reporting is for the technical systems to be open to public scrutiny and for there to be more than enough time allotted to test every system in the field to verify that it actually works as it should.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981, and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email