The practice of democracy in our constitutional republic flourishes in the presence of contradictions. Democracy, itself, is bound by our inalienable rights, bestowed to us by our Creator. These rights, not given to us by our government by any majority or by any vote, cannot be rescinded, for they were not wrought by man.
Voting is a contradiction for it is both public and private at the same time. Its process is intended to be secret, but transparent. Its agency is intensely partisan, but its effect is intended to be unifying.
The legitimacy of voting must survive despite the contradictions intrinsic to the process. It is with this background that we must consider a contested national election where there is significant controversy. We must put ourselves to the question: How are we to conduct trustworthy elections ─ not in the presence of good intentions and decisions, but in a domain populated by risks, usurpations and threats to freedom whose scope we cannot foretell?
To surmount these obstacles, solutions must be forged to secure America’s elections. Certain principles must be adopted to institute a more robust system. The following steps should be considered and refined by a bipartisan commission, comprised of our nation’s most trusted leaders ─ chartered to improve dramatically the voting process.
The first step to securing our elections is to realize that the disenfranchisement of legitimate voters is produced by the enfranchisement, errant or otherwise, of illegitimate voters. The value of a trustworthy vote is eviscerated by the acceptance of an illegitimate vote. Without understanding this, there can be no understanding, for if left uncontrolled, irreparable damage to the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment is all but assured. Thus, the saw that to demand ID as a precondition to vote is somehow discriminatory is absurd and demeaning.
There are many demands placed on our nation’s citizens, including the paying of taxes and, at times, military service. It is not too much to demand that voters possess adequate forms of identification. If someone lacks this in our modern world, it is incumbent on these citizens to obtain ID and for states to make this process painless.
The failure to demand identification in our elections opens the door for illegitimate votes and contested elections; this issue must be solved and not used as an ersatz political talking point. Voter registration and list procedures must reflect best practices gleaned from the states. Signature and/or photo confirmations of voter identities should be mandatory in a nation in which millions of persons, here illegally, reside.
Second, Albert Einstein noted, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” This is a foundational principle to redress the flaws in our present system: voting must be straightforward, for its purpose is to serve the will of the people. Technology must never be substituted for established and tested means; technology must not be considered an end in itself, for it cannot discriminate between virtue and lawlessness; further, emerging technologies, such as strong artificial intelligence, must not be allowed to subsume human oversight.
Third, elections must be auditable: Ballots should be hand and not machine marked; paper records of all votes must be retained, even as electronics are employed as an aid in registering and tallying votes. Engineer W. Edwards Deming transformed entire industries through statistically based quality-control techniques. Deming stressed principles that we must apply to voting: enforcing management responsibilities limits problems; establishing a superior, uniform system design improves service; instituting product testing is essential; resolving outcome variations is critical.
Fourth, America must use its expertise, drawn from many domains, to fix the system and ensure security. The commission should charge the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to research best voting practices from each state and from around the world to develop standards. NIST, whose mission within our government is to advance “measurement science, standards, and technology,” is renowned for developing software standards; NIST should lead in developing a certification process for all software used in our elections.
Federal funds to states should be made contingent on states’ adopting certified software for machines, registration processes, public-reporting systems and other voting infrastructures. Machines must have tamper-proof seals; once certified, last-minute, unobserved changes must be forbidden.
Fifth, all election software, result processing and equipment must be designed by American citizens and be resident in America. All electronic or mechanical machine parts must be American made. There should be hardware firewalls that limit connections only to authorized networks. The election-process networks must be air-gapped from the Internet and be designed to prohibit remote control. The surveillance of warehouses and election places must be enforced on a continuous basis.
Sixth, a two-person rule should be adopted, derived from military procedures used to safeguard sensitive systems. In practice, a bipartisan, two-person team should confirm all voter information for those voting in person or by mail. A second, bipartisan, two-person team, housed in a different facility, would tabulate and confirm voting selections. Methods and instruments should be developed to ensure comprehensive, trustworthy audit capabilities.
These six steps constitute a layered defense that is dynamical. These steps are a beginning to build a voting system for America that will be apolitical, robust, secure and auditable.
• John Poindexter is a physicist and a former assistant to the president for national security affairs. Robert McFarlane is chairman of an international energy company and a former assistant to the president for national security affairs. Richard Levine is a former deputy assistant secretary of the Navy and a former NSC staff director. They are the authors of the book “America’s #1 Adversary and What We Must Do About It ─ Now!”