The Troubled History Of Voting Machines
Voters elect officials in representative democracies who pass laws, interpret laws, enforce laws, or appoint various other representatives to do one of the above. The terms of elected officials, the particulars of their laws, the structure of courts that interpret laws, and the makeup of the bureaucracies that are necessarily created to govern are different in every country.
In China, the people elect the People’s Congresses who then elect the nearly 3,000 National People’s Congress members, who then elect the Present and State Councils. The United States has a more direct form of democracy and the people elect a House of Represenatives, a Senate, and a president who the founders intentionally locked into a power struggle to keep any part of the government from becoming authoritarian. Russia is setup similar. In fact, the State Duma, like the House in the US are elected by the people and the 85 States, or federal subjects, then send a pair of delegates to a Federal Council, like the Senate in the US, which has 170 members. It works similarly in many countries. Some, like England, still provide for hereditary titles, such as the House of Lords - but even there, the Sovereign - currently Queen Elizabeth the second, nominates a peer to a seat. That peer is these days selected by the Prime Minister. It’s weird but I guess it kinda’ works.
Across democracies, countries communist, socialist, capitalist, and even the constitutional monarchies practice elections. The voters elect these representatives to supposedly do what’s in the best interest of the constituents. That vote cast is the foundation of any democracy. We think our differences are greater than they are, but it mostly boils down to a few percentages of tax and a slight difference in the level of expectation around privacy, whether that expectation is founded or not.
2020 poses a turning point for elections around the world. After allegations of attempted election tampering in previous years, the president of the United States will be voted on. And many of those votes are being carried out by mail. But others will be performed in person at polling locations and done on voting machines.
At this point, I would assume that given how nearly every other aspect of American life has a digital equivalent, that I could just log into a web portal and cast my vote. No. That is not the case. In fact, we can’t even seem to keep the voting machines from being tampered with. And we have physical control over those! So how did we get to such an awkward place, where the most important aspect of a democracy is so backwater. Let’s start
Maybe it’s ok that voting machines and hacking play less a role than they should. Without being political, there is no doubt that Russia and other foreign powers have meddled in US elections. In fact, there’s probably little doubt we’ve interfered in theirs. Russian troll farms and disinformation campaigns are real. Paul Manafort maintained secret communications with the Kremlin. Former US generals were brought into the administration either during or after the election to make a truce with the Russians. And then there were the allegations about tampering voting machines. Now effectively stealing information about voters from Facebook using insecure API permissions. I get that. Disinformation goes back to posters in the time of Thomas Jefferson. I get that too.
But hacking voting machines. I mean, these are vetted, right? For $3,000 to $4,500 each and when bought in bulk orders of 16,000 machines like Maryland bought from Diebold in 2005, you really get what you pay for, right? Wait, did you say 2005? Let’s jump forward to 2017. That’s the year DefCon opened the Voting Machine Hacking Village. And in 2019 not a single voting machine was secured. In fact, one report from the conference said “we fear that the 2020 presidential elections will realize the worst fears only hinted at during the 2016 elections: insecure, attacked, and ultimately distrusted.”
I learned to pick locks, use L0phtCrack, run a fuzzer, and so much more at DefCon. Now I guess I’ve learned to hack elections. So again, every democracy in the world has one thing it just has to get right, voting. But we don’t. Why? Before we take a stab at that, let’s go back in time just a little.
The first voting machine used in US elections was a guy with a bible. This is pretty much how it went up until the 1900s in most districts. People walked in and told an election official their vote, the votes were tallied on the honor of that person, and everyone got good and drunk. People love to get good and drunk. Voter turnout was in the 85 percent range. Votes were logged in poll books. And the person was saying the name of the official they were voting for with a poll worker writing their name and vote into a pollbook. There was no expectation that the vote would be secret. Not yet at least. Additionally, you could campaign at the polling place - a practice now illegal in most places. Now let’s say the person taking the votes fudged something. There’s a log. People knew each other. Towns were small. Someone would find out.
Now digitizing a process usually goes from vocal or physical to paper to digital to database to networked database to machine learning. It’s pretty much the path of technological determinism. As is failing because we didn't account for adjacent advancements in technology when moving a paper process to a digital process. We didn't refactor around the now-computational advances.
Paper ballots showed up in the 1800s. Parties would print small fliers that looked like train tickets so voters could show up and drop their ballot off. Keep in mind, adult literacy rates still weren’t all that high at this point. One party could print a ticket that looked kinda’ like the others. All kinds of games were being played. We needed a better way.
The 1800s were a hotbed of invention. 1838 saw the introduction of a machine where each voter got a brass ball which was then dropped in machine that used mechanical counters to increment a tally. Albert Henderson developed a precursor to a computer that would record votes using a telegraph that printed ink in a column based on which key was held down. This was in 1850 with US Patent 7521. Edison took the idea to US Patent 90,646 and automated the counters in 1869. Henry Spratt developed a push-button machine. Anthony Beranek continued on with that but made one row per office and reset after the last voter, similar to how machines work today.
Jacob Meyers built on Berenek’s work and added levers in 1889 and Alfred Gillespie made the levered machine programmable. He and others formed the US Standard Voting Machine Company and slowly grew it. But something was missing and we’ll step back a little in time. Remember those tickets and poll books? They weren’t standardized.
The Australians came up with a wacky idea in 1858 to standardize on ballots printed by the government, which made it to the US in 1888. And like many things in computing, once we had a process on paper, the automation of knowledge work, or tabulating votes would soon be ready to take into computing. Herman Hollerith brought punched card data processing to the US Census in 1890 and punch cards - his company would merge with others at the time to form IBM.
Towards the end of the 1890s John McTammany had aded the concept that voters could punch holes in paper to cast votes and even went so far as to add a pneumatic tabulation. They were using rolls of paper rather than cards. And so IBM started tabulating votes in 1936 with a dial based machine that could count 400 votes a minute from cards. Frank Carrell at IBM got a patent for recording ballot choices on standardized cards. The stage was set for the technology to meet paper. By 1958 IBM had standardized punch cards to 40 columns and released the Port-A-Punch for so people in the field could punch information int…