I finally read the past weekend’s New York Times Magazine story about how broken and insecure the country’s election technology is. It was a sensible and thorough story, persuasively making the case that our election systems are so defective and vulnerable that no one will even be able to tell if hackers or the machine manufacturers ever try to rig an election, or whether or not they already have.
I put off reading it, and hated reading it when I did, because I’ve already read it all before, or most of it, in installments and occasional comprehensive overviews, again and again through the past 17 years. The 2000 presidential election was not decided by voters; it was decided by acts of bad faith performed in the wreckage of of a failed voting system. And in the aftermath, Congress decided the solution was to make everything worse—to replace the mess of defective punch-card ballots, and the cynical disputes over how to interpret them or whether to interpret them at all—with computerized voting systems whose failures would happen invisibly, within proprietary operating systems, leaving no evidence of what the voters had even tried to do.
It was obviously stupid from the beginning. It replaced doubts about the legitimacy of elections with a system that made it impossible to even check the legitimacy. The machines were balky and erratic and the workers who operated them were unprepared and the people whose companies produced them were partisans and profiteers. Every time any reporter looked into election technology, they found the same things: brokenness, opacity, clear opportunities for failure and corruption and no clear defenses against them.
To read it again is like reading a postmortem on the failed ongoing foreign wars, or a synopsis of the global-warming situation. It’s not a secret. It never was a secret. All that’s changed through the years is that the technology has become even more antique, the hacking efforts less and less theoretical. Everyone who looked saw this coming.
Unlike the wars or the climate, it’s not even a mystery how to fix it: physical paper ballots, countable and auditable. Nothing secret, nothing virtual, nothing proprietary. This was the answer in 2001. It would have been the answer in 2004, when nobody could say what did or didn’t happen in Ohio. It would be the answer today, if anyone in a position to make a difference wanted to make a difference.