One Former IBM Scientist and Her Fanatical Support of the Paper Ballot

Why this computer scientist believes there is only one safe voting technology.

She’s been called a Luddite. She’s had microphones yanked out of her hand, and been called a crank by both the left and the right. And she remains adamant that the move toward electronic voting technology is a massive threat to democracy.

“For years, Barbara Simons was the loneliest of Cassandras—a technologist who feared what technology had wrought,” writes Jill Leovy in The Atlantic. “Her cause was voting: Specifically, she believed that the electronic systems that had gained favor in the United States after the 2000 presidential election were shoddy and eminently hackable.”

A pioneer in computer science at IBM in the ‘70s, Simons is now retired and committed to sharing her concerns. To prove the point on how vulnerable the current voting technology is, she participated in this year’s DefCon hacker conference in Las Vegas and their Voting Village event, a staged hack attack on voting machines.

“Four voting machines had been secured for the event, three of them types still in use,” Leovy writes. “One team of hackers used radio signals to eavesdrop on a machine as it recorded votes. Another found a master password online. Within hours of getting their hands on the machines, the hackers had discovered vulnerabilities in all four.”

“I lose sleep over this. I hope you will too,” she told the hackers who had packed into a windowless conference room at Caesars Palace.

While she’s been at this for years, people finally seem to be paying attention. Thanks in large part to the recent massive and highly publicized hacking crises, the people responsible for the safety of our data integrity are waking up to the threats.

Some believe the answer lies in more complicated technology; some are actively pushing blockchain technology as the answer, like the people at FollowMyVote. For Simmons, more tech is not the answer.

As she’s been telling state officials and anyone who will listen, “We have a single technology at our disposal that is invulnerable to hacking—paper.

Of course, the counting of those paper ballots are open to vulnerabilities, but Simmons has a simple fix.

As Leovy explains, “all 50 states use computerized scanners for vote counting—few of them with sufficient postelection auditing to detect manipulation. Mandatory audits, in the form of hand counts of randomized samplings of ballots, are essential to protect against invisible vote theft, Simons believes.”

In an unaudited system, malicious code could easily go unnoticed. “It’s not rocket science,” Simmons said. “Any halfway-decent programmer could do it.”

The primary mission of our election process is to record voter intent while maintaining voter privacy. Paper, she insists, is the way to make this happen.

“Marked clearly and correctly, it’s a portable and transparent record of voter intent, one that voters themselves can verify, at least while the ballot is still in their possession,” Leovy notes. “It’s also a permanent record, unlike computer memory, which can always be overwritten.”

“There’s no malware that can attack paper,” Simons said. “We can solve this. We know how to do it.”

It’s time to listen to a bit of common sense on this issue, rather than adopting the latest tech that looks to solve a problem while it creates any number of new ones. I’m not a Luddite either; tech has its role as a fantastic tool for humankind. Yet we have to stop assuming that simply because it’s digital, it’s better. Often, it’s exactly the opposite.