About the author: Greg Miller is co-founder and chief operating officer of the OSET Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates for open-source election technology.
With the 2022 midterm election cycle behind us, we can breathe a sigh of relief. The results did not produce the widespread mayhem many thought would materialize. The conditions for chaos remain, however, and doubts are still easily sown. It is imperative the inherent vulnerabilities in our election administration systems be addressed. That must start well before the 2024 presidential election.
Here’s the problem. We’re conducting elections on the voting-machine equivalent of a 2002 Pontiac. Election workers are dedicated public servants who ensure our elections run smoothly. But we’re asking them to drive across the state with faulty steering, bad brakes, burning oil, and a busted muffler. Then we’re relieved when they arrive at their destination without incident. “Dodged a bullet” should not be the standard to which we hold our elections.
As long as these conditions persist, the problems will remain. To strengthen belief in election outcomes, we must administer our elections with better, more verifiable and transparent tools.
The opacity about how elections operate breeds distrust. Once you cast a vote, you leave it to the government to count it. That happens behind the scenes using proprietary software controlled by three commercial companies. Election deniers depend on this opacity as the medium through which disinformation can spread and chaos is manufactured. It simply takes too long to explain to average citizens why rampant conspiracy theories aren’t true.
(Dominion Voting Systems, one of the three companies, has sued Fox News alleging on-air comments defamed its products. Barron’s is published by Dow Jones, whose parent company, News Corp, shares common ownership with Fox.)
Another major problem is obsolescence. There hasn’t been a major investment in election-technology innovation since 2002 following the Help America Vote Act. And let’s not confuse that with millions of taxpayer dollars spent on vital election security. There’s not enough money in election tech for the commercial sector to invest in innovating beyond a minimally viable product. We could be driving a Tesla. Instead we’re picking up the pieces of our junker as they fall off and welding them back on.
This failing market fuels election denialism. Our lack of innovation and modernization makes our elections easy targets for imaginary allegations and conspiracies. In spite of the best efforts of election officials, things break and mistakes happen on election day. An innocently broken tabulator can suddenly be weaponized as “proof” of a “rigged election” primarily because no one can see or understand how the underlying technology works. We witnessed this on Jan. 8 in Brazil, when insurrectionists hung a sign demanding the source code of their country’s voting machinery.
Those rioters were wrong, and so were the insurrectionists who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. But it doesn’t help that we all have to trust that commercial vendors’ “black box” software does what they say it does. If we continue on this road, we are playing an existential game of democracy roulette.
There’s no commercial way out of this problem. The solution is a digital public works project to produce the necessary new, innovative, election technology software, where experts can “see” into the “glass box” to independently verify its correctness and, therefore, its integrity and security. That technology is then released into the marketplace to be freely adopted, adapted, and deployed.
That’s better for a simple reason. Where the commercial black box demands trust, the public glass box delivers belief.
Such a project would catalyze a desperately necessary reformation of the commercial industry to deliver it. Public or “open source” technology means the American people own the systems that run our elections, while experienced vendors deliver finished voting systems built on that public technology. Through publicly owned, commercially delivered technology, we can reinvent the obsolete systems that have become a target for conspiracy theorists and enemies of the state who are hellbent on imploding our democracy.
America could implement a generational solution, at scale, by our nation’s 250th birthday in 2026. A transparent, public system would be commercially delivered and maintained. It would inspire confidence in our elections and restore belief in our democracy. For the security and integrity of our election and democracy, nothing less is acceptable.
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