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Technical Difficulties On Election Day Won’t Mean Democracy Is Over

The 2020 election season kicked off with a technological mishap (remember the broken Iowa caucuses app??), and it will likely end with at least a few more. But that doesn’t mean we’re facing a new, unprecedented crisis of democracy.

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Understandably, a lot of concern this year has been focused on potential issues with mail-in voting. But the Rube Goldberg machine of our election system involves a number of independent pieces of technology, as well, including servers that host voter-registration websites and ballot-scanning devices that count our votes. At each point in the system, there is an opportunity for glitches that can slow things down, and experts say we should expect some technical difficulties on Election Day.

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“I guarantee that something will happen on Election Day,” said David Becker, the executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “Election Day is the culmination of a process in which 150 million Americans are doing the same thing in a process run by about 1 million volunteers. There are going to be problems and mistakes.”

Already, we’ve seen a glimpse of what hiccups can occur. The voter registration portals in both Virginia and Florida were knocked offline on the last day to register — thanks to an accidentally severed fiber optic cable in Virginia and an overwhelming rush of traffic to Florida’s site. Both states extended the deadlines to register to make up for the outages. In Georgia, voter sign-in tablets generate a card that voters then use in conjunction with a touchscreen device. But on the first day of early voting at State Farm Arena, one of the largest voting centers in Atlanta, the cards caused an “invalid” error when inserted into the touchscreens. Eventually, poll workers fixed the problem by rebooting all of the machines. (The answer, even in democracy, is almost always to turn it off and on again.)

On Election Day, any number of glitches could slow things down at a given site, as we’ve seen in years past, including electronic pollbooks crashing, touchscreens registering the wrong vote, or optical scan devices — which are used to tally votes — dropping ballots. While the vast majority of polling sites will likely have no issues, it’s inevitable that some things can go wrong, sometimes causing massive delays that risk voters not being able to cast their ballot.

Election security experts often refer to a tradeoff between security and convenience. Touchscreen machines that record a digital ballot, for example, may be simple, but they are not considered as secure because they do not create a paper trail. In recent years, many jurisdictions have made the switch to more secure systems, such as hand-marked paper ballots, or ballot-marking devices, which use a touchscreen machine to mark a paper ballot that can then be scanned with the paper trail retained.

More Americans will use a paper ballot this year than any time since voting first started to go digital, according to the Brennan Center, which estimates less than 4 percent of voters will cast a ballot on a paperless machine. But while the switch to paper is good from a security standpoint, any new change in technology can lead to mishaps, according to Mark Lindeman, the co-director of Verified Voting, an election security organization.

“It’s pretty common for a certain percentage of machines to fail. It’s also true that when poll workers are unfamiliar with the systems, they sometimes have trouble getting them started in the morning,” Lindeman said, noting that the pandemic has made it difficult to do further pilot tests of new equipment. “We’re really excited about the move to paper but this has not been a terrific year for any kind of technological transition.”

Of particular concern are jurisdictions that have introduced new technology recently, which include several swing states. Georgia replaced all of its direct-reporting machines with ballot-marking devices last year. Voters in six counties used the machines during local elections last fall, and the state used the machines for its primaries, but both of those pilots had some equipment malfunctions, and many Georgians have yet to use the machines. The same is true for Pennsylvania in many regions, including Philadelphia, after a rocky rollout of its new ballot marking devices.

Technical troubles can cause real harm, including disenfranchising voters: if lines are seven hours long and you’re trying to vote on your 20-minute lunch break, there’s a chance you might not vote at all. But it’s also not necessarily evidence of a deliberate attack or an undermined election, despite president Trump’s near-constant portending of election malfeasance.

“I do think because we’re in this environment, ordinary problems that of course we’re going to see in every election get blown out of proportion,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the election reform program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “They’re easy to use for disinformation, [to suggest] that there’s some bigger problem with the system or that the system has been hacked. But these problems are just going to happen when you’ve got 10,000 separate election jurisdictions, all with different technology.”

In other words, one isolated incident does not necessarily indicate an existential crisis. Come to think of it, that’s advice for the next couple of months, in general.

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Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.