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Hackers probably didn't steal votes today, but we'll never know for sure

Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

It has become an American tradition: Every two years, voters go to the polls to choose their representatives. And every two years, people report that e-voting glitches are causing votes to be miscounted.

Today is no exception. Reports of e-voting problems are coming from the DC metro area, as well as from Illinois and Texas. Predictably, these incidents are being seized upon by partisans as evidence that the system is rigged against them.

In past elections, investigators have concluded that these kinds of problems were probably innocent technical glitches — not evidence that someone was trying to steal an election. Most likely, the same is true of this year's e-voting problems. Yet these recurring problems are still a powerful argument against using e-voting machines (also known as "direct-recording electronic," or DRE, machines) in elections.

Democratic legitimacy doesn't just require that votes be counted fairly and accurately, it also requires that they be widely accepted as being fair and accurate. To achieve that level of legitimacy, it's important that every voter be able to understand how the voting process works, so they can have confidence that it will work correctly.

The transparency of paper ballots is a huge advantage here. Everyone understands how paper works, and paper ballots can always be counted by hand if people suspect that counting machines have malfunctioned.

In contrast, hardly anyone understands how computers work. They're fantastically complex, and there's no easy way to observe what's happening inside them. So if someone did tamper with a voting machine and cause it to miscount votes, we might never be able to prove it.

Of course, paper elections can be stolen too. But the techniques for stealing elections are more visible and labor-intensive. Generally, to steal a paper election you need to recruit co-conspirators to visit various polling places and modify or replace hundreds of thousands of ballots. For a large election, that requires a sizable operation that's likely to be detected.

In contrast, an electronic election allows someone to steal votes silently and invisibly by tampering with a voting machine before the election begins. A single hacker or corrupt insider might have an opportunity to tamper with dozens of machines — especially because some voting machines have been shown to be vulnerable to voting machine viruses that spread from one voting machine to another without any direct human action.

So while today's glitches are probably just glitches, it's not crazy for people to mistrust electronic voting machines. The problem isn't just that e-voting machines are more vulnerable to certain kinds of attacks. It's that their complexity and lack of transparency means that there's no way for ordinary voters to understand the voting process and figure out if it's reliable or not. That will inevitably lead to conspiracy theories that will harm public confidence in the electoral process.