Society has advanced at an exponential speed over the last few decades, and democracy helped us get to this point. Indeed, democracy effectively changed the world, fostering the growth of civilization as we know it. But democracies cannot exist without the people, who are guaranteed the right to vote, as well as additional legal and political rights.
Democracies and democratic republics operate on the principles of election and equal representation. Unfortunately, in our modern digital age, those principles are increasingly vulnerable to various threats, including hacking. Is the very technology that connects every corner of the globe also undermining the integrity of the democratic election process?
Let’s take a look at the physical and cyber threats affecting voting in the US and around the world and consider what needs to happen to ensure continued security of democratic elections into the future.
From Push Buttons to Touch Screens: A Short History of Voting Machines
By and large, the democratic election process hasn’t changed much since the days of ancient Greece, but the way we cast our votes has advanced considerably. In public assemblies, where citizens voiced their opinion on a wide range of civil matters, they typically raised their hands to approve a proposed measure, and officials visually determined which side had the most votes. As one might expect, this process was prone to error, and more reliable methods of counting votes were developed over time.
The Industrial Revolution was a game-changer on several levels, and the voting process is no exception. Within the United States, the first voting machine approved for use in a general election was patented by inventor Anthony Beranek in 1881. Lever machines and paper ballots were also in widespread use during this period, and these methods remained largely unchanged until digitization came on the scene. Even voting by mail has been around since the 19th century.
Today, most countries utilize some type of electronic voting machine in all types of elections, but the machines, as well as the process itself, vary considerably among nations. India, considered the world’s largest democracy, boasts a lengthy election period and approximately one million polling locations nationwide. Nearly two-thirds of India’s eligible voters came out to the polls in the nation’s 2019 parliamentary elections.
Ensuring Election Security and Preventing Cyber Attacks
The election process looks a bit different on the other side of the globe. For example, voter turnout is typically lower in the democratic US than in India, for a number of reasons. According to the Pew Research Center, the US trails behind most other developed nations in terms of voter turnout, especially during midterms and localized elections. Only about 56% of eligible adults in the US cast their vote in the 2016 presidential election.
One of the factors that may be contributing to the abysmal voter turnout numbers among US citizens is the increasing fear of some kind of cybersecurity attack. Many people around the world are wary of modern electronic voting machines, which some say can be easily hacked. Their fear is certainly understandable, considering what occurred during the 2016 presidential election. Using malware, Russian hackers were able to access the personal information of voters in 21 states, calling future election cybersecurity into question. Electronic voting machines themselves may also be vulnerable to hackers, both foreign and domestic.
For its part, the US government found no evidence of hacking or fraud in the nation’s subsequent presidential election, held in 2020. According to the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, in fact, the 2020 election was the “most secure in American history.”
How Social Media Threatens the Democratic Process
In terms of voting security, there are outside factors to consider as well, long before you head to the polling place. Even if votes aren’t directly compromised, your vote can be swayed by the media you consume. The unfortunate reality is that the bulk of modern media companies have an agenda of some sort, and they often look to social media to assess (and possibly influence) public opinion. You may not realize it directly, but your opinion on a candidate or proposed policy may also hinge on social media.
And that’s a huge problem, reports indicate. A WIRED writer even claims that “the rise of social media has caused irrevocable harm to global electoral integrity and democratic institutions,” and there’s evidence to back it up. Young voters are particularly susceptible to social media influence.
Yet social media data is far from infallible, and it’s easy to misread public opinion that’s sourced from online platforms. Voting is a deeply personal decision. As such, diligent citizens should make the effort to obtain political information from a variety of sources, on all ends of the political spectrum, to ensure that you’re not being influenced by social media or its mainstream counterpart.
The vote of the people is integral to the democratic process, but modern technology has compromised voting security around the world, despite streamlining the process and improving access. As such, voting security should be prioritized, in every democratic nation on Earth. Further, citizens should also be aware of the potential for misinformation or other biased influence via media channels, especially social media platforms.