The one bit of good news amid all the bad: There’s a paper trail. Because precinct captains kept handwritten tallies of the outcome, voters can expect a reliable analog answer in the end — no matter how dysfunctional the digital system that delayed it.
Election security experts have been insisting on backup paper ballots for votes everywhere, though it’s likely eight states will still be paperless come November’s presidential race. They’ve also been insisting that officials use the backups to conduct what are called risk-limiting audits: hand counts of a sample of all votes to make sure the computers have gotten it right.
The Iowa ruckus makes clearer than ever the need for such a system. It also highlights the risks not just of mobile reporting but of mobile voting, too. There’s risk of malware on the device used for transmission, risk of manipulation on the network that carries the data, risk of an election server itself being penetrated — and when voters are sending in their choices from afar, a secure paper trail isn’t even possible. Yet dozens of states still insist on experimenting with ballots-by-Internet for certain subsets of citizens. Some claim they’re avoiding any risk by using blockchain technology to secure ballots; researchers aren’t convinced.
A stolen election is not the only risk. Democracy could be undermined even if an election isn’t stolen but Americans believe it has been. The Iowa fiasco appears to be the result of maladministration rather than malice, yet the confusion after caucus night opened an information void that quickly filled with untamed speculation and conspiracy theories. Iowa might have avoided this erosion of trust had officials opened their system for probing by “white-hat” hackers instead of keeping it secret, tested the program statewide and put in place a plan for recovery and reassurance.
Or officials could have considered another option: doing things the old-fashioned way.