Florida voters sue for recount: A call to address election issues?

Three Florida voters have sued for a recount of all paper ballots in Florida, adding to growing pressure for change before the 2018 election.

Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/AP/File
Voters line up at a polling station at the Coral Ridge Mall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Election Day 2016. Three Florida voters are calling for a hand recount of all paper votes in the state.

With their call for a recount in Florida, a group of voters may hope to encourage a push for change in voting procedure – even if the recount itself is a long shot.

Citing concerns about hacking, malfunctioning voting machines, and voters being turned away, three central Florida voters have brought a lawsuit against President-elect Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, and the Sunshine State’s 29 Republican electors. They are calling for a hand recount of all paper ballots, to be paid for by the defendants.

The group’s lawyer, Clint Curtis, acknowledged that Mr. Trump, Governor Scott, and others can ignore the recount request entirely. But the suit, the latest of several to question the 2016 election results, may strengthen calls to address election issues.

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, who has been at the forefront of efforts to audit the vote in close states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, has called the recounts “part of an election integrity movement to attempt to shine a light on just how untrustworthy the US election system is.” Experts say a combination of legal and technical changes could improve the situation before the next federal election in 2018.

“This is a time for patriots of all political stripes to stand up for the national interest in cyber-secure elections,” writes Candice Hoke, professor of law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Ohio and co-founder of Cleveland State University’s Center for Election Integrity, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor.

During the presidential election campaign, Trump repeatedly claimed that the election was rigged. At the same time, a string of cyberattacks cast doubts on the integrity of the election. 

Nevertheless, in a Pew poll conducted shortly after the election, more than four in five voters surveyed was at least somewhat confident that votes across the country were counted accurately. As slim voter margins in key states were revealed, the consensus seemed to be that pollsters had just got it wrong. But the uncertainties and irregularities that have allowed for recounts in several states also flag a need for changes, experts say.

The first change that David Jefferson, a computer scientist who is an expert on voting and election issues, recommends is for every district to use paper ballots.

“That means scrapping electronic voting machines that do not produce a durable paper record,” Dr. Jefferson writes in an email to the Monitor. “And it means no internet voting of any kind.”

Software bugs, along with limited training and resources, mean that electoral officials do not have the tools to protect against fraud on their own.

At present, around 70 percent of voters live in jurisdictions where paper ballots are used. But having paper ballots available – and using them to audit the vote – is essential to discouraging hackers and revealing irregularities.

"When states insulate their elections from sound post-election auditing, they essentially have erected a neon sign saying 'Hackers: come play here! We won’t check and you won’t be discovered,'" explains Prof. Hoke. 

Hoke and Jefferson recommend eliminating the legal and financial barriers to recounts and auditing, instead making what is called a “risk-limiting audit” a routine part of every vote count. Such an audit looks at a limited number of ballots again by hand. (The number of ballots looked at depends on the closeness of the result given by the machine vote and the degree of confidence officials want to have in the vote.)

This approach is not only cheaper than recounting an entire state’s votes, but it also offers voters confidence in every election result, not just those that are contested.

“There’s sound reason to question the results” in any state or locality that doesn’t use these technologies, writes Hoke, framing routine audits as a way to improve voter confidence in election results.

If the federal government is serious about securing elections, Hoke suggests, providing federal funding for optical scanners that count paper ballots is key, as is federal legislation banning unsafe technologies. Writing on Medium last month, J. Alex Halderman, computer science and engineering professor at the University of Michigan, suggested that these “important new safeguards could be put in place by 2018.”

The limited number of voting locations, stringent voter ID requirements, and the challenge of getting to a polling place on Election Day all remain to be addressed, Hoke notes. But achievable technical changes may help bolster faith in the electoral process as soon as the next federal election.

“We can trade expensive, insecure, and untrustworthy election technologies for relatively inexpensive, secure, and trustworthy technologies – some states already have done this,” Hoke explains.

"I certainly hope" the ongoing recounts and lawsuits will increase pressure for this change, Jefferson writes.

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