THE NEW YORK TIMESIn my old workplace, right next to the comfortable couches where we would take breaks, we kept a voting machine. Instead of using the screen to pick our preferred candidate, we played Pac-Man. We sent Pac-Man’s familiar yellow chomping face after digital ghosts with the same kind of machine that had been used in 2008 in more than 160 jurisdictions with about nine million registered voters.
This was at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, where researchers had been able to reprogram the voting machine without even breaking the “tamper evident” seals.Voting isn’t a game, of course, and we need to trust the machines that count our votes. Especially this year. Donald J. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, raised the possibility of “rigged” elections, and his former adviser Roger J. Stone Jr. has warned of a “blood bath” in such a case. A recent poll found that 34 percent of likely voters believed the general election would be rigged.It’s unclear what mechanism the Trump campaign envisions for this rigging. Voter fraud through impersonation or illegal voting is vanishingly rare in the United States, and rigging the election by tampering with voting machines would be nearly impossible. As President Obama pointed out in a news conference last week, where he called charges of electoral rigging “ridiculous,” states and cities set up voting systems, not the federal government. That’s true, and it means the voting machine landscape is a patchwork of different systems, which makes the election hard to manipulate in a coordinated way.But it’s still a bleak landscape.Over the years, the team at Princeton, cooperating with other researchers, has managed to disable and tamper with many direct recording electronic systems that use touch-screen computers without a verifiable paper trail.I’m not the only one who is worried. This month, Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, said his department was concerned about infiltration of the nation’s electoral systems. Experts have warned about voting machine vulnerability for years, but nothing has changed.The mere existence of this discussion is cause for alarm. The United States needs to return, as soon as possible, to a paper-based, auditable voting system in all jurisdictions that still use electronic-only, unverifiable voting machines.I study the impact of technology for a living, and I’m a former programmer. I happily bank online, and use my smartphone to message friends and family. I support and trust encryption to protect ordinary people’s communication. I even believe computers will probably turn out to be safer drivers than too-easily distracted humans. I’m not averse to technological solutions.
Sign Up for the Opinion Today NewsletterEvery weekday, get thought-provoking commentary from Op-Ed columnists, The Times editorial board and contributing writers from around the world.In this case, though, we need to stick with methods that allow a paper trail that is verifiable after the election. No matter how you vote, there should be a tightly guarded paper record that can be used for audits, if not for the initial counting. This is not just because paper verification is more tamper-resistant than our insecure voting machines. Our elections need to be open to oversight without the need for voters to understand how encryption works. We can’t tell them to simply trust the experts, especially when people are deliberately sowing distrust.There is another upside to relying on paper. Audits of such systems can require something else that, at first glance, seems like a hindrance: People need to show up to do them. As the “hanging chads” debacle in Florida demonstrated in the 2000 election, paper systems, too, can be badly designed. However, in a healthy democracy, requiring people to show up is a good thing.There are already minefields ahead for this election. Georgia, for example, relies on electronic systems that leave no paper trail. The machines in Georgia are also quite old, and a Brennan Center for Justice report found that their software was “outdated” — primarily using operating systems like Windows 2000. This not only puts them at risk for crashes and lost votes, but also leaves them more vulnerable to hacking, as such older software no longer receives fixes for security flaws.Since 1996, Georgia has voted for the Republican candidate in presidential elections, but this year a batch of recent polls have painted a tight race — with some polls even indicating that the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, may have an edge. If the race is close, and the outcome questioned, voters in Georgia will have no means to audit the results. Other potential swing states, like Pennsylvania and North Carolina, also use electronic machines with no paper trail, at least in some counties. According to the nonprofit Verified Voting, people in at least a dozen states could encounter that same situation.We have also seen concerns about foreign nations meddling directly in United States elections, via hacking or other means. This is an unlikely scenario; however, the fact that people are even voicing such concerns makes it all the more urgent to dispel them. As Matthew Green, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in cryptography and cybersecurity, said, “There is only one way to protect the voting system from a nation-state funded cyberattack: Use paper.”Fortunately, there is a reliable and transparent method that combines convenience and the ability to perform an audit: paper ballot systems with optical scan counting. Avi Rubin, an expert on election security who is also a professor at Johns Hopkins, testified about a decade ago that when properly put into effect, these systems have many advantages. People can keep voting even if the equipment fails; it’s possible to audit results; and the systems are easy to use.It is too late to fix everything for this election. But we should start planning to verify and audit voting wherever possible. For jurisdictions that still use electronic-only voting, we need to guard the machines, to avoid the kind of direct tampering that can turn them into Pac-Man consoles. Randomly selected units should also be used as “test only” machines on Election Day, to check that they are tallying the votes correctly.States like Georgia that need to replace their creaky machines should use this opportunity to switch to optical-scan ballots — and, when necessary, jurisdictions should receive federal aid to upgrade to systems that include a verifiable paper trail.Campaigns spend a great deal of effort to get people to vote. We need to do more to make sure that nobody can cast doubt that everyone’s vote is counted.Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTopinion), and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.Zeynep Tufekci is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science and a contributing opinion writer.