US Election Day and Concerns over Electronic Voting

Tomorrow, Tuesday November 8th, the United States will choose their 45th President, the election campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will end and the votes of US citizens will decreed victory for the Republican or Democratic candidate. What not everyone remembers, however, is the way in which the voting will take place. In America, in fact, for years, numerous voting mechanisms have been coexisting: traditional ballot papers to be inserted in the ballot box have been flanked by many devices for electronic voting.

Electromechanical voting machines (which record the vote by punching on paper) and computer with touchscreen terminals are only two of the types of machinery used to express electoral preferences: alongside the undoubted advantages in terms of speed and storage of voting data, they have an unavoidable component of vulnerability that every four years rekindles the debate over the safety of the vote in the US.

It must be said immediately that the devices for electronic voting are not connected to the Internet, so a hacker attack to alter the outcome of the vote in real time is almost impossible. But it is possible, in theory, a databreach of the servers where information on voters are registered, or a physical tampering with election machines. The latter type of attack may for example, consist in an alteration of the terminal memory by overwriting its software: in this way, the device apparently records the correct vote, then prints the distorted one.

Even this kind of attack, in truth, is difficult to accomplish, especially on a large scale, but the problem in the USA is rather perceived: in fact, as many as 66% of US citizens believe that the elections could be in some way at risk of fraud. And the fact that most of the voting machines are older than 10 years and there are no funds to renew them, only adds to these concerns.

But beyond the legitimate concerns over cyber security, the debate on electronic voting touches on issues that affect not only the relationship between citizens and institutions but also the sense of personal participation in the destiny of the country. For a long time numerous experts say electronic voting is accompanied by a “lack of cognitive transparency of the process“, aggravated by the inability to verify the outcome of the vote. In the voting booth the citizen is making a considered (and lonely) choice, of which he is also owner until it is entrusted to the government. Conversely, in the electronic voting, the lack of “physicality” inevitably creates a “detachment” between the institution and the citizen, increasing the insecurity and lack of responsibility of the latter.

In short, the problems related to electronic voting – in-depth analysis – appear very different from the general danger of a hacker attack feared by many and should push the largest democracy in the world to a deep rethinking of its electoral system.