Every two years, on the first Tuesday after a Monday in November, people across the United States gather at their local polling sites to vote. Each time, they’ll choose a representative for Congress. Depending on their state and what year it is, some might also be asked to vote for a senator and state and local officials. Many voters may even get to choose yes or no on a specific issue (such as whether to approve taxes for schools and parks).
Most importantly, every four years people entering those voting booths will be asked to select someone for the highest office in the land: president.
The outcome of all of these elections depend on how people vote. At one level, that refers to the choices people make on their ballots. But it also can have a lot to do with the process — how those people vote. And this is where technology matters.
Computers play some role in virtually all major U.S. elections. Sometimes they star. In some polling booths, for instance, people may touch a computer screen, selecting each candidate and answer to a displayed question.
Other times, those machines may lurk in some back room, outside of the polling place. Their job may be simply to “read” paper ballots.
Security experts say there’s no guarantee that online voting will be both secret and secure.
But how safe and reliable are those computers? By now, everyone knows these machines can be hacked. And do computerized systems fully protect voters’ rights?
In late 2000, the United States waited for weeks to learn whether former Texas governor George W. Bush or outgoing vice president Al Gore would be president. The decision seemed to pivot on whether computers might have misread some ballots in Florida. Under the system used then, voters punched holes in prescored paper ballots. But many ballots had hanging bits of paper left by incomplete hole punches. Did a partial punch signal someone’s true choice? (These bits of paper came to be known as “hanging chads.”)
Some states have now gone back to having people vote by coloring in ovals on a paper ballot. But even here a computer usually steps in to scan the ballots and tally the votes.
All of these methods, and the hassles they involve, seem somewhat low-tech in our internet age. Yet most states don’t let people vote online in a general election unless the voter is overseas or in the military (where mailed responses may not reliably arrive back in time). Most places don’t even let people vote on a computer anymore unless the system also produces a paper backup for each vote.
Cumbersome as these systems are, there are good reasons to be careful. A good voting system must do a lot more than simply tally votes. People have to trust that cheaters can’t rig the process. There should be ways to double-check the results. And the system must protect a voter’s privacy.
New systems to achieve this are in the works. They, too, rely on computers. And they are using the technology in new ways to not only provide accuracy, but also privacy and new types of ballot security.
People make choices on the internet every day. And scientists who have surveyed the general public find most people could easily use such a system.
In one study, researchers at Rice University in Houston, Texas, had people vote in a mock election. Those who used their smartphones made fewer errors than did those who used another computer system. Still, the team did not recommend a widespread switch to vote-by-phone systems.
Claudia Ziegler Acemyan is a psychologist at Rice. “Mobile voting is not ready for federal, state and local elections due to security concerns,” she says.
And here’s why. “Yes, you can order a pizza online. Yes, you can play games online. You can do your banking online,” says Caitriona Fitzgerald. She is the chief technology officer and state policy coordinator for EPIC. That’s the Electronic Privacy Information Center, based in Washington, D.C. Those online systems she mentioned “are not necessarily 100 percent secure. And with our elections,” she argues, “we need to make sure it’s 100 percent secure.”
Voting officials want to avoid having voters wait on long lines like this one from Brooklyn in 2008.
April Sikorski, Wikimedia Commons
Data breaches have become almost common. They have taken place at Facebook, credit card companies, online stores and many other businesses. Government agencies have had their files read and copied by spies and thieves. The Democratic National Committee was even hacked in 2016 and many of its emails leaked online.
Voter information is not always safe either. In August 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that hackers had gotten into online voter registration files for the state of Illinois. Later reports suggested people had illegally tried to break into voter databases held by more than 20 states.
Messing with voter-registration files could cause hassles and delays for people at the polls. Some might be prevented from voting at all. But blocking or tampering with people’s actual votes could be as bad — or worse. The government might have no way to make things right if people’s votes are stolen or altered. Depending on the circumstances, the outcome of an election might be called into question. The true winner might never be known.
Privacy is another big worry. In the United States, Fitzgerald notes, “We have the right to a secret ballot.” But the technology now available for online voting does not provide the security needed to protect a voter’s right to a secret ballot, she points out.
How secure is online voting?
In the United States, it is illegal for someone to “buy your vote” — that is, pay someone to vote a certain way. And laws exist to keep someone from being threatened — coerced (Ko-URSED) — into voting one way or another. The concept of a secret ballot is designed to prevent such coercion, says David Dill. He’s a computer scientist at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif.
He also founded the Verified Voting Foundation in Carlsbad, Calif. In August, his group, along with EPIC and Common Cause in Washington, D.C., released a new report. Privacy is linked to the integrity, or honesty, of elections, the groups point out. But states cannot yet guarantee the privacy of online voting, their report finds.
“We want people to be able to vote freely,” Dill says. “We don’t want them to be paid for their votes, and we don’t want them to be threatened if they vote differently from whoever is threatening them.” For now, some states ask the limited number of people allowed to vote online to agree to give up that right. Other voters, though, may not know that states cannot yet guarantee the privacy of their online votes.
People may be more or less likely to vote based on how polling places are set up.
liz west, Flickr
The good news: Researchers are getting closer to being able to provide such a guarantee. In September 2016, the British company Smartmatic announced that it had been working with a company in the East European nation of Estonia to create a secure and anonymous way for people to vote online.
“Our system allows voters to verify electronically that their vote was cast as intended,” says Ernesto Parisca. He’s a company spokesperson based in Miami, Fla. “This verification is done from a different device from that in which the vote was cast.”
One method is a bit like the two-step process used by Twitter and some other websites. With those systems, when a user signs in, a special number is sent to their phone. To access their account, the user has to enter that number into the website. A version of this new system was tried out as an option to let people cast online votes earlier this year in Utah. These people were voting to select whom state Republicans would back at the July 2016 party convention in Cleveland, Ohio.
Voting by mail actually presents more concerns than online voting, Parisca argues. Each person who opens mail gets to see the votes. Those people would be election officials, though — not hackers. However, those votes still could be stolen while moving through the mail, or fraudulent ballots could be posted in a voter’s name.
It’s not yet clear how experts elsewhere will rate the Smartmatic system. But even if an online system is well-designed, that won’t prevent problems if a hacker got into someone’s computer or phone, Dill and Fitzgerald say. A virus or other malware might copy and transmit how someone voted or did other things online, for example. Then the vote would no longer be private. Malware might even let a hacker change votes or otherwise mess with someone’s ability to cast a vote.
Even a selfie from a voting booth makes some experts worry. In September 2016, a federal court ruled that New Hampshire couldn’t prevent the phone photos. In its view, the ban wrongly limited the right to free speech. But others said a photo might be used as proof for someone who engaged in vote-buying or coercion. The U.S. Supreme Court might eventually rule differently in that or another case.
Leaving a paper trail
“We humans are prone to error,” notes Rui Santos. He’s a computer scientist at Smartmatic’s office in Panama City, Panama. Using computers helps avoid vote-counting errors. Worries arise, however, when there is no paper trail (ballots that can be reviewed one-by-one after a disputed election).
As of September 2016, parts of 15 U.S. states were using all-electronic voting machines with no paper printouts. “Why should we trust votes that are counted on these electronic machines?” Dill asks. “I could think of a thousand ways to make a machine like that cheat,” he says. And yes, he adds, those cheats “would be very difficult to detect.”
For older machines, the crime could take place quickly. Andrew Appel is a computer scientist at Princeton University in New Jersey. An online video shows how he broke into a computer-based voting machine. This Sequoia AVC Advantage device has been used in New Jersey and some other states. In just a few minutes, Appel installed software that altered how the machine worked. This software could change vote tallies — without the voter or officials realizing anything was wrong.
Lower-tech voting methods may be less efficient, but they produce a paper trail.
Polling officials control access to voting machines, Santos notes. Those people have a duty to guard against break-ins. All Smartmatic machines used in the United States meet strict standards and provide paper records of votes, this company spokesman says.
But clever hackers may beat the safeguards. Machines can malfunction. Software can have glitches. That’s why many election officials now argue that backup paper records are essential. “Those copies mean that if something goes wrong, we have a lot of opportunity to fix it,” says Dan Wallach. He’s a computer scientist at Rice University.
Here’s what happens: Computers add up and report the votes cast on them, either directly or using some optical scanner. For each election, officials also go through a sample of the paper ballots. A fuller audit and recount can be done if the results from this partial audit don’t match, or if the margin of victory in a race is small. A complete recount could even take place if there were a serious doubt that the vote count had been accurate.
Crafting better computers
Few scientists would argue that computers don’t provide real benefits for voting. They count and add faster — and more accurately — than people do. Computers also can be easier to use by people with some disabilities, such as those who may be blind, deaf or missing a limb. And with paper backups, machine reports and paper ballots act as checks on each other.
Computers also can make voting more convenient. Today, most people have to show up within approved hours at a government-selected polling site. It may be far from where they work. Or there could be long lines. Or it may not be open when a voter will be home. But Wallach, Acemyan and other researchers are working to create a computer system that would let voters cast a ballot from anywhere in a county. They call their pilot voting system STAR-Vote.
The researchers are working to develop it with the help of officials in Travis County, Texas (where the city of Austin is located). This system wouldn’t need voters to go to the one spot named as their polling place. They could vote from any polling place in the county. People who work in downtown Austin, for instance, might choose to vote there, rather than near their homes in the suburbs.
Creators of a computerized voting system at Rice University in Houston, Tex., say it will let people vote wherever it’s convenient in the county, while providing secure, private and verifiable results.
Jeff Fitlow, Rice University
But any polling machine must still be tamper-proof. Toward that end, STAR-Vote and other newer voting computers use advanced encryption. That’s the math of secret codes. “Think about a ballot as just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s,” says Wallach. A 1 is a vote for someone. A 0 means a voter didn’t choose that person. When someone casts a vote, the computer encrypts it so no one peeking into the system would know which person or resolution someone had voted for. Encryption protects the privacy of each vote.
“We want anybody to look at every ballot and be able to add them up without knowing how anybody voted but still get the right answer,” Wallach explains. To do that his group uses a trick called homomorphic encryption. It lets people do math with encrypted numbers without decoding them first.
The process works a bit like the way you can multiply numbers written as logarithms, Wallach explains. A logarithm is the power, or exponent, to which a base number must be multiplied by itself to produce another number. You can add the logarithms of two numbers to multiply them, even if you don’t have a table handy to figure out the base number.
Ideally, voting computers also should use cryptography in clever ways to make it easier for people to confirm that no one tried to rig the system. For example, various equations in the STAR-Vote program wouldn’t work out right if someone tried to hack into the system. “You would actually be able to notice that the system was attacked and realize that something iffy is going on here,” explains Acemyan at Rice.
No matter what the voting technology, people should be able to use it easily, Acemyan says. “Ballots where you fill in bubbles on a piece of paper and cast it in a ballot box can be incredibly easy to use if they’re designed right,” Acemyan says. “But so can a voting machine.”
Her research suggests that voting computers can help prevent errors. For example, a program can prevent someone from voting twice. Or, it can remind people if they forgot to vote for a candidate for each office.
Computers also might help boost people’s trust in elections. An end-to-end verifiable system is one that lets people check on its security at every step in the process. That way, election officials would know if someone tried to hack into the system. STAR-Vote would even give people a code that links to their ballot. Voters could then check online to make sure their ballot was recorded, Acemyan says. Because of privacy concerns, however, this system would not show the actual vote.
Voting technology can help or hinder citizens’ right to vote.
Ryo Chijiiwa, Flickr
Research will continue into how voting systems might be made better. One of Acemyan’s recent studies looked at how polling places are set up. Among other things, people said they would be more likely to vote if dividers separated voters from each other. In contrast, people did not like a set-up where they would vote with their backs to the door. That position would let people behind them peek at what they were doing.
Ultimately, researchers hope their work will help boost voter turnout. Only about 57 percent of eligible people voted in the 2012 U.S. presidential election. Only 41.9 percent of voters cast ballots in the 2014 congressional elections. The more people who vote, the more the outcome will represent a community as a whole.
But technology is only one part of the answer to improving election outcomes. Having informed voters also matters. “It’s important to analyze the facts to know which things are good and which things aren’t, and to make informed decisions,” says Santos. Even those who are too young to vote can have an effect, he adds. Teens and tweens can make their opinions known. And they should encourage every adult they know to vote.
“Some cities and counties have opportunities for teenagers to help out at polling places on election days,” notes Dill. “It's a great way to find out how elections really work from the inside.” It also allows young people to meet others in their community, he says — and make the election go more smoothly.
In any case, adolescents should be sure to register and vote when they’re old enough. After all, in a democracy, everyone’s vote matters.
L. Rafael Reif, a distinguished electrical engineer whose seven-year tenure as MIT’s provost has helped MIT maintain its appetite for bold action as well as its firm financial footing, has been selected as the 17th president of the Institute.
Reif, 61, was elected to the post this morning by a vote of the MIT Corporation. He will assume the MIT presidency on July 2.
As the Institute’s chief academic officer since 2005, Reif led the design and implementation of the strategy that allowed MIT to weather the global financial crisis; drove the growth of MIT’s global strategy; promoted a major faculty-led effort to address challenges around race and diversity; helped foster the emergence of an innovation cluster adjacent to MIT in Kendall Square; led the development of MITx, the Institute’s new initiative in online learning; and led MIT’s role in the formation of edX, the recently announced partnership between MIT and Harvard University that builds on MITx and that aims to enrich residential education while bringing online learning to great numbers of people around the world.
Reif has been a member of the MIT faculty since 1980 and is currently the Fariborz Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technology in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He succeeds Susan Hockfield, who announced earlier this year that she would step down after more than seven years as MIT’s president.
A rich candidate pool gained from ‘especially broad outreach’
Reif’s selection as MIT’s next president follows broad consultation with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of MIT. Through outreach via multiple channels, a 22-member Presidential Search Committee generated a list of more than 100 candidates for the presidency. That list included people identified by the committee itself as well as those suggested by others; members of the MIT community and people outside the Institute; and candidates with a broad range of backgrounds in academia and beyond.
“I am deeply honored to be elected president of the Institute I love so dearly. MIT’s impact on my life — how I think, how I make sense of the world, and how I align my personal aspirations with the call to service — has been profound.”
L. Rafael Reif
“The search committee has done excellent, thorough work that not only resulted in an outstanding outcome, but also in a great feeling of community among the wide-ranging group of people who helped us in our search,” said MIT Corporation Chairman John S. Reed ’61. “Rafael Reif emerged early as a uniquely qualified candidate, and that impression only deepened as our discussions with him and with members of the MIT community proceeded. Rafael brings with him a career as a distinguished engineer and a gifted administrator, and his 30 years of achievement at MIT speak to a profound dedication to, and understanding of, the Institute.”
The Presidential Search Committee was chaired by James A. Champy ’63, SM ’65, a Boston business consultant and author; Champy also led the 2004 presidential search that culminated in Hockfield’s selection.
“The committee’s intense and thorough process included especially broad outreach,” Champy said. “The committee sought input not only from faculty and students, but also from staff. As a result of this rich internal input as well as input from voices outside MIT, we had an excellent pool. As a hundred became dozens, and dozens a small handful, one name kept coming up. In discussing Rafael’s candidacy with key members of the MIT community, we heard not only about Rafael’s impressive record of achievement in service to the Institute, but also about people’s enthusiastic support for him as a leader fully engaged with the MIT community. The committee members are overjoyed by Rafael’s election.”
An accomplished provost
As provost, Reif has held overarching responsibility for MIT’s educational and research programs, as well as for the recruitment, promotion and tenuring of faculty. He has worked closely with the deans of MIT’s five schools to establish academic priorities and with the executive vice president to manage the financial planning to support these priorities. Also in his role as provost, Reif has oversight responsibility for Lincoln Laboratory (a research laboratory that MIT operates for the U.S. Department of Defense), as well as for the Institute’s libraries and a number of major interdisciplinary laboratories, centers and programs.
Reif played a critical role in balancing MIT’s budget before, during and after the global financial crisis. Early in his tenure as provost, he led a “rebalancing” process that eliminated a $50 million structural deficit — putting the Institute in a much better position to weather the global downturn that began in 2008. Then, after the crisis struck, Reif led the team that designed and implemented the strategy for managing budget cuts. Among other steps, a 200-member Institute-wide Planning Task Force ultimately achieved significant long-term cost reductions by acting upon 77 percent of all ideas submitted by members of the MIT community.
As provost, Reif propelled a global strategy that has seen the Institute partner with governments and foundations to create four new research centers and universities worldwide. In 2007, MIT assisted in the creation of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, a graduate educational and research institute devoted to advanced energy and sustainable technologies. Since 2008, Reif and other Institute officials have partnered with Singapore’s government to establish two new institutions: the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology Centre and the Singapore University of Technology and Design, whose first class of students matriculated earlier this month. Last fall, MIT joined in the creation of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Russia, envisioned as a unique, world-class graduate research university.
Starting in 2007, Reif promoted a major faculty-led effort to address challenges around race and diversity, convening a faculty committee to investigate impediments to MIT’s recruitment and retention of minority faculty. The committee ultimately concluded that while efforts to hire and retain minority faculty had produced some gains, the experience of minority faculty at the Institute differed from that of their majority peers. Reif has since taken steps to foster a culture of inclusion at the Institute, taking a personal interest in recruiting and retention efforts for minorities and women. To help with these efforts, Reif established the Office of the Associate Provost for Faculty Equity.
Finally, Reif led a five-year project to develop a new paradigm in online learning. These efforts came to fruition with last December’s launch of MITx: a pioneering online-education initiative designed to bring new tools to students at MIT and to offer MIT content online to learners around the world, for free, through an interactive, open-source learning platform. MITx’s initial offering — an online course called “Circuits and Electronics” — has enrolled more than 120,000 students from around the world. Reif’s vision of exploring how online learning tools can improve residential education, as well as his interest in broadly accessible, high-caliber online courses, was further advanced earlier this month with the creation of edX, a $60 million online-education partnership with Harvard University. Reif led MIT’s entrance into that significant partnership.
“During my presidency,” Hockfield said, “our provost, Professor Rafael Reif, has been a true and trusted partner. I and the global MIT community have benefited immensely not only from his brilliant leadership of major initiatives, such as our international engagements and the MITx and edX launches, but also from the vital role he has played in stewarding the Institute’s finances and capital planning during a time of global financial uncertainty. His leadership in establishing the Institute-wide Budget Planning Task Force, which so brilliantly tapped the creativity and dedication of the MIT community, brought forth the very best of MIT. The Institute today finds itself both sure- and swift-footed, thanks in great part to Rafael’s strategic intelligence and dedication. I am enormously pleased by his election, knowing he will serve the Institute as president with devotion, insight and compassion.”
A citizen of the world
Leo Rafael Reif (pronounced “rife”) is the youngest of four sons of Eastern European emigrés who fled Europe in the late 1930s, living first in Ecuador and then Colombia before settling in Venezuela. The family was poor, supported by his father’s work as a photographer, and spoke Spanish and Yiddish at home.
Reif was born in Maracaibo, Venezuela, and moved to Caracas with his family at age 9. A member of the first generation in his family to attend college, he earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Venezuela’s Universidad de Carabobo in 1973. After working for one year as an assistant professor at Universidad Simón Bolívar, he left for graduate school in the United States. Despite speaking little English upon his arrival at Stanford University in 1974, he earned an MS in electrical engineering the following year and completed his PhD in electrical engineering in 1979.
Reif joined MIT in January 1980 as an assistant professor of electrical engineering. He was promoted to associate professor in 1983, earned tenure in 1985, and became a full professor in 1988.
“I am deeply honored to be elected president of the Institute I love so dearly," Reif said. "MIT’s impact on my life — how I think, how I make sense of the world, and how I align my personal aspirations with the call to service — has been profound. The Institute has never failed to challenge, invigorate and inspire me: I have found that one of its most stimulating characteristics is that it always feels new. As I begin to comprehend the humbling responsibility with which the Institute has entrusted me, the ‘I’ becomes a ‘we’: The true strength of MIT leadership has always come from the power of the MIT community, whose collective wisdom, talent, creativity and drive have made history for 150 years. I am thrilled to think of the work we will do together for — quoting from our mission statement — ‘the betterment of humankind.’”
A longtime leader at MIT
The president-elect has held leadership posts for much of his time on the MIT faculty. From 1990 to 1999, Reif was director of MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories, an interdepartmental laboratory supporting research and education in microscale and nanoscale systems. He then served as associate head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science — MIT’s largest academic department — from 1999 to 2004, and chaired the department before becoming provost in August 2005.
“During my presidency, our provost, Professor Rafael Reif, has been a true and trusted partner. ... I am enormously pleased by his election, knowing he will serve the Institute as president with devotion, insight and compassion.”
An early champion of MIT’s engagement in micro- and nanotechnologies, Reif was instrumental in launching a research center on novel semiconductor devices at MIT, as well as multi-university research centers on advanced and environmentally benign semiconductor manufacturing. He also played a key role in creating the national effort now known as the Focus Center Research Program and in launching its Interconnect Focus Center.
Samuel M. Allen, the POSCO Professor of Physical Metallurgy in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Chair of the MIT Faculty, said, “Professor Reif is widely admired for his integrity, knowledge of MIT and vision for the future. His leadership during the 2008 financial squeeze, and his vision for the evolution of residential education in the digital age, are tangible signs of his ability to mobilize the community in major endeavors. From my vantage point as Chair of the Faculty, I know that Rafael seeks faculty input in making important decisions, and he is open to embracing new ideas. I’m excited to have the opportunity to work closely with him in the coming year.”
A leader in microelectronics
Reif is internationally recognized as a leading microelectronics researcher who has helped address the technical challenges that have arisen as electronics have grown ever-smaller in recent decades. He did pioneering work in and was an early proponent of three-dimensional integrated circuits, in which layers fabricated through different processes are stacked to form complex monolithic systems. Such an approach allows the integration of a variety of electronic functionalities into a smaller chip area.
Reif’s group has also worked to identify and develop environmentally benign alternatives to chemicals used to etch patterns on microchips; some gases used heavily by the semiconductor industry were believed to contribute to global warming. His team has worked to assess the etching efficacy of a variety of alternative compounds, measuring the effluents of these processes to determine their potential environmental, safety and health impacts.
A prolific scholar
Reif holds 15 patents, has edited or co-edited five books, has supervised 38 doctoral theses, and is a co-author of more than 350 papers published in refereed journals and conference proceedings.
In 1993 Reif was named a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) “for pioneering work in the low-temperature epitaxial growth of semiconductor thin films.” From the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC), he received the 2000 Aristotle Award for “his commitment to the educational experience of SRC students and the profound and continuing impact he has had on their professional careers.” He is a member of Tau Beta Pi, the Electrochemical Society and the IEEE. For his work in developing MITx, he received the 2012 Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award.
Reif and his wife, Christine, are residents of Newton, Mass. They have a daughter, Jessica Reif Caplan, a son-in-law, Benjamin Caplan, and a son, Blake Harrington.
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President-elect L. Rafael Reif
Photo: Dominick Reuter
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President-elect L. Rafael Reif at the May 2 press conference announcing edX.
Photo: Allegra Boverman
L. Rafael Reif selected as the 17th president of MIT