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Taking Democracy's Pulse

Although Jill Stein raised millions of dollars to fund vote recounts in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, the Green Party candidate’s effort came to an end this week. On Monday Wisconsin’s recount was finalized, verifying Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton by a difference of 22,748 votes. Meanwhile, a federal judge denied Stein’s request for a recount in Pennsylvania, finding that “suspicion of a ‘hacked’ Pennsylvania election borders on the irrational.”

These developments may be perceived as a disappointing defeat for those who backed Stein’s recount effort in the hope that it would swing the election result in favor of Clinton. But theirs was an ill-fated objective from the start, since the recount was never likely to change the election results in the first place. Whether or not Stein herself realized it, that endeavor had more to do with taking the pulse of our democracy. After a campaign cycle plagued by suspicion of voter fraud, corruption, and foreign interference, the recount was about restoring the faith of the American people in our democratic process.

Credible reports that Russians had successfully breached voter databases in Illinois and Arizona—along with the highly publicized hack of Democratic National Committee email servers—amplified the public’s suspicions and bred a climate of distrust around electoral integrity. Coupled with the reality of our distressingly out-of-date voting technologies, those fears can hardly be characterized as “irrational.” Despite the federal judge’s curt dismissal, the recount had a sensible purpose, allowing us to assure ourselves that things were in order—not because things necessarily did go wrong, but because they so easily might have.

Although no documentable evidence exists substantiating that a third party tampered with the results of the vote, there are still significant flaws within our voting system, flaws that demand our attention. It’s more important than ever to assure Americans and the people of nations across the world that our voting system is sound and secure. The fear that hacking, corruption, or faulty machinery might have influenced the outcome of the election in any state warrants a second look, if only to ensure the integrity of the system.

We cannot ensure free and fair elections unless we rest them on the foundation of accessible, secure, and up-to-date voting infrastructure. If you take a closer look at the dated voting machines being used across the country, you’ll see that they were not designed to carry us into the digital age.  Plagued by degraded touchscreens, worn out modems, and failing memory cards, these decades-old machines are at the end of their lifespans. Some are even running on earlier versions of Windows that haven’t had security updates in years. Their age makes them particularly insecure, more difficult to maintain, and more likely to fail. You wouldn’t expect your laptop to last a decade, so why expect that of our voting technology?

However, the solution to our aging devices may not be to replace them with the most cutting edge technology. Take electronic voting, for example: This election cycle, five states, including Pennsylvania, used direct recording electronic systems (DREs), which allow constituents to record their votes directly into a computer’s memory. The problem with these DREs is that they lack a voter verified paper audit trail, making them a prime target for interference. While the state of Pennsylvania has audit requirements that must be met following each election, the prevalence of DREs throughout the state leave it unclear how these requirements could be met, a deficiency that might have been exposed if Stein had successfully been granted a recount.

We know that manipulating vote counts in just a few precincts of key states can sway the national results of an election. In that light, it’s a wonder that we don’t take auditing more seriously. U.S. elections are locally run, with many different systems, varying degrees of security, and different levels of resources. A modernized voting system would ensure that audits are a form of best practice across all states to ensure that no matter how each state conducts their election, the outcome can be verified. I’m not talking about mandating costly and time intensive hand-recounts like those Stein called for; I’m referring to the manual post-election audits already required by some states.

When faced with potential cybersecurity threats to an election, post-election audits can serve to either confirm or eliminate the possibility of election tampering. Unlike statewide recounts, audits review the equipment and procedures used to count votes and then focus on randomly selected precincts where they conduct a hand count of paper records and compare the totals to those previously reported. Individuals who suggest that audits are unnecessary because the results are probably correct entirely miss the point.  If we are going to have long-term confidence in our local, state, and national elections, we need to create an infrastructure for secure and reliable elections. Verification of the vote shouldn’t have to come from a third-party candidate; it should be built in as a normal and appropriate measure to ensure the validity of our elections.

Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice has studied voting system security for over a decade. Shortly after the election he and Christopher Famighetti wrote for Future Tense on improving the security and reliability of our voting system now, not four years from now when we’re ready for our next presidential election. They reminded us that the president-elect ran on the promise of investing in the nation’s infrastructure, including roads and bridges, but an even more pressing need now is investment in the infrastructure that is most critical to a functioning democracy: our voting system.

A report from the Brennan Center recommends Congress and state legislatures allocate the funds for new, reliable, and secure voting systems that require audits of election results by using voter verifiable paper records. And they propose that the next president and congress fill all vacancies on the Election Assistance Commission. We need the incoming administration to recognize the importance of taking these measures and that starts with recognizing recount efforts and investigations into foreign interference in the recent election for what they are—a call to action, not the whining of “sore losers.”

The movement to recount the results of the election originated with accounts that well-respected security experts had found indications of potential irregularities in the outcome of the races in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—three states that were pivotal in securing Trump’s Electoral College victory. As a result, the undertaking became entrenched in partisan politics. However, preserving the integrity of our voting system is an issue on which we should be able to unite. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona is leading the charge for a bipartisan investigation into the influence of Russia on the election. In an interview this week with Face the Nation host John Dickerson, McCain stressed, "You can't make this issue partisan. It is too important. A fundamental part of a democracy is a free and fair election." 

As the next President of the United States Donald Trump has the opportunity to put politics aside and lead by ensuring voters have renewed faith and confidence in the electoral process. Protecting the reliability of election results by insuring the integrity of our voting system could and should be a non-partisan effort that serves to help unite a still, post-election, divided nation. 


Emily Fritcke was a program associate at Future Tense. She graduated from Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, with a BA in English literature and history.