The Iowa caucuses have thrown the Democratic Party into disarray and cast doubt on the security of the 2020 US presidential election. Organizers blame an app for the fiasco — and several US states require digital voting.
The catastrophic caucuses in the US state of Iowa do not bode well for the Democratic Party's 2020 presidential election campaign. Usually, results are available and announced on the night of the caucuses. This year, results trickled in for days while officials cited technical problems. Both the former mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders declared victory in the Midwestern US state of Iowa. The national party leadership later demanded that the results be thoroughly checked.
One reason for this fiasco was a buggy app used to send caucus results from electoral districts to the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters. It has been reported that users were at times unable to log in, or found the app failing to load or even crashing. "It's clear that mobile apps are not ready for prime time," Marian K. Schneider, the head of Verified Voting, a nongovernmental group that advocates for greater transparency in elections and accuracy in vote counting, said in a statement on February 4.
It could have been worse. "Iowa was a disaster, and everyone knew it was a disaster," the British documentary filmmaker Russell Michaels told DW. "But what if the app had worked but didn't work completely right? What if it had transmitted wrong results that appeared credible? No one would have noticed." Because of such risks, many computer scientists advise against online elections. "All scientists I spoke with told me it's impossible to vote securely online," Michaels said.
Michaels has studied various polling machines used in US elections. In 2006, he released Hacking Democracy, a documentary revealing that machines used for counting votes and considered hack-proof could, in fact, be manipulated. Although his film sparked an outcry, little changed. "We filmed the original hack in 2005," he said, yet "today the problems are still shocking."
In many parts of the United States, it is more common to use paper ballots with scanners that tally the votes. "Paper ballots scanned by a computer is the safest, most accurate way to vote," said Charles Stewart III, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and one of the heads of the Voting Technology Project, which is run by the MIT and the California Institute of Technology. "Humans are very bad at counting so many ballots," he said. "Computers are great at tedious tasks," he added.
Machines are only superior to humans if they're glitch-free and cannot be tampered with. For Hacking Democracy, the filmmakers' rigged a scanner to record votes in a manner completely different from those that were on the physical ballots at all —a stark reminder not to overrely on technology. Still, at least a paper trail allows for a recount.
Ahead of November's presidential election, HBO will air the latest documentary by Michaels. His Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America's Elections will be released on HBO on March 26.
Safer with paper
Some US states have done away with paper ballots entirely. They now use machines that are similar in appearance to ATMs. Voters use a touch screen, and the results are announced once the polling station closes. But the problem with this form of voting is that there is no possibly to verify the results by recounting.
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Such machines could be hacked. Or a simple coding error may lead them to record entries that differ from the will of the voters.
New Hampshire, which holds its Democratic primary on Tuesday, still uses paper. "It's hard to mess with the paper ballot system," said Theo Groh, a Democratic Party activist in the state.