On November 5th, 2019, Pennsylvania’s Northampton County held elections through digital voting machines manufactured by Election Systems & Software. The machines, called the ExpressVoteXL, are marketed as state-of-the-art; they come equipped with a 32-inch touchscreen on which voters fill their ballot and an embedded printer which produces a backup ballot that voters must visually inspect before officially casting their votes. The votes are recorded onto a USB drive and counted.
However, just after the polls closed, officials immediately began questioning the results. A Democratic judicial candidate had, according to the machines, received just 164 votes out of 55,000 ballots. Their fears were justified: A bug in the touchscreen of the ExpressVoteXL machines had caused massive vote tally mistakes within the machine’s USB drive. Officials had to use the backup paper ballots to rectify the issue.
Americans, both Republican and Democrat, are expressing fears over election security. Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election brought these fears to a head, but electronic voting machines, and the technical issues they face, are a constant undercurrent in anxiety over American elections. The Brennan Center found that 41 states use voting machines which are at least 10 years old, and old equipment comes with higher rates of technological glitches, increased security risks, and longer lines on Election Day. Further, the federal guidelines for election machines are woefully inadequate; counties are only required to comply with regulations that were written in 2005, eons ago relative to the pace of modern technological development. While not as prominent as other threats (namely, Russian interference in elections), America’s aging election system poses a substantial risk to American democracy—not necessarily because it actuallyimpacts election tallies (though this can certainly can be the case), but also because it erodes the faith of the American people in the election process.
Democracies flourish when citizens believe they have the ability to substantially influence their government through elections and other means . Elections, therefore, must involve political elites competing for the people’s vote, and the people in turn casting their vote in a free and fair election . However, as fears over election security rise, and more counties encounter problems like Northampton’s, the people’s belief in their ability to influence their government begins to erode. Even though Northampton eventually corrected the vote-tally issue, trust in the election system there deteriorated. Election officials and the general population alike were worried by a counterfactual—what if the issue hadn’t been caught as it was? These counterfactual anxieties pervade the discourse on election security in the U.S. When children at a hacking conference in Las Vegas easily gained access to an election machine, the public response was immediate. There’s no evidence a U.S. election has been directly hacked via voting machine, but the fear rises regardless by virtue of the what if: elections have the potential to be hacked, and that potential erodes trust in the entire system. As the people become more suspicious of vote counts, the legitimacy of election results is thrown into question.
Even if elections are simply perceived as being less robust, parties may refute the wins of their opponents. This undermines the democratic norm of mutual toleration, or the practice that competing parties accept each other as legitimate rivals, which Levitsky and Ziblatt argue is essential for a strong democracy. When parties start to question one another’s electoral legitimacy, rifts open that pave the way for autocrats to consolidate power under the justification—true or not—of corrupted elections . Donald Trump has already capitalized on this anxiety, asserting that election security concerns would not be addressed by his administration without a strengthening of voter identification laws, which limit the franchise by making voting more difficult and expensive for already disadvantaged populations.
ExpressVoteXL machines were also used in and around Philadelphia, an area which will have considerable influence in the upcoming primary elections. These machines failed once, and the mistake was caught; however, the fear of a new issue is already palpable and will continue to erode trust in the election system in Pennsylvania and in the rest of the country. Without proper action to shore up voting machines in addition to a deliberate campaign to restore the public’s trust in the election process, anxieties about election security will shake one of the essential norms of American democracy. Schumpeter, Joseph. (1943). Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers.  Dahl, Robert. (1972). Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press.  Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. (2018). How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.