SciLine interview: Dr. Juan Gilbert, chair of the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Department at the University of Florida. He studies voting technologies, artificial intelligence, and user-experience aspects of technologies. Recently, he has also focused on safe and effective voting practices during the pandemic.
What does the evidence say about the security of mail-in ballots?
JUAN GILBERT: Mail-in ballots – the evidence suggests that there is no serious threat as far as No. 1, ballots being changed or ballot stuffing, meaning someone sending in a bunch of ballots. Those two are the things that are allegations out there, but there’s no evidence to support those. So mail-in ballots are secure. The biggest threat to mail-in ballots would be signature verification, meaning a mismatch on signature, so they discard the mail-in ballot. Or the voter just didn’t follow the procedure and protocol to put the ballot in a right envelope, and things like that get it sent back. So those would be the biggest threats. But as far as, you know, a threat to hacking or something like that, that’s not a threat at this time.
How has electronic-voting-system technology evolved recently?
JUAN GILBERT: Well, I think that the biggest advancement in technology and voting has been on the accessibility side. People that were blind, who don’t have arms, people who can’t see, can’t hear, can’t read – they have the ability to vote privately and independently now, whereas 20 years ago, they did not, and so advances in technology have empowered and enabled that demographic. I would also say there was a shift in technology where they created machines called DREs, or direct recording equipment, that allow people to touch the screen and record a vote digitally. I was part of a committee that – in the computer science community as well, a committee of the National Academies – where we released a report saying that we have to have a paper ballot. And we saw a shift towards hand-marked paper ballots and/or ballot marking devices, which are elections technology equipment that produces a paper ballot.
So we made a shift towards technology and moving in another direction and with technology that produces a paper ballot, so those would be the advances that we’ve seen.
Are electronic voting systems reliably effective at counting votes?
JUAN GILBERT: Depends on what kind of system – so you’ve got to go back and think of it this way. So some places are usually hand-marked paper ballots. Those ballots go into a scanner, like a Scantron for those people of a certain generation who will remember that. It scans it, and they tally. Those have been shown to be pretty accurate. But at the same time – again, that National Academies report – we recommended that you do what’s called a risk-limiting audit on the paper ballots, because what happens if someone did mess with the scanner, or the scanner had an error? You get the wrong result. So you still have to audit at some point to ensure that that particular piece of equipment is giving you the right result.
Should the public be concerned about voting integrity in the upcoming presidential election?
JUAN GILBERT: I don’t think the public should be concerned about voter integrity with respect to people hacking votes or several people illegally voting. Things like that – I don’t see those as major threats. I do see challenges to ballots. So for example, in the mail-in voting area, there could be challenges to count certain ballots depending on when they arrived, how they were marked and things like that. So those challenges to me are a bigger threat. I’m not as concerned about a foreign entity somehow infiltrating and stuffing the ballot box. That’s not a major concern at this time.
Do you have any expectations about when we may know the results of this presidential election?
JUAN GILBERT: Oh, I wish. That’s the million-dollar question. I have no idea, and if anybody tells you they do, I have to disagree. No one knows. So what’s going to happen is – all I could tell you is that – don’t expect results on election night. I think it’s going to be a period of time to count the mail-in ballots ’cause many states can’t start opening those until Election Day, or the polls close.
So if that is the case, where you had an increase – not only, like, tenfold, but a hundred to a thousandfold in mail-in voting in some places – yeah, it’s going to take a while to scan those and count those. And then that doesn’t even include any legal challenges that occur on those ballots. So I suspect we could be counting for days to come. Sorry.
What kinds of measures can polling places take to encourage social distancing?
JUAN GILBERT: There are a few things they could do. No. 1 – and we’ve seen these in other places of business – they could put labels down or tape to have places for people to stand that are 6 to 10 feet apart. They could have signs that says, hey, you have to wear a mask. Masks required.
Those two things right there would be very beneficial. And – somewhat of a selfish plug – they could use my inLine Ticketing System. They go to inlineticketing.com, and they could use that ticket system to allow people to disperse out of the line and come back at a designated time.
As reporters cover this election, is there anything they should look out for?
JUAN GILBERT: That’s another difficult question, simply because there’s so much variability across the states. Even where I am in Florida, there’s just so much variability. So, for example, one of the things reporters could be looking for is ballot rejection rates. How many ballots are being rejected, and why? So that’s a big question for mail-in ballots. You could also look at legal challenges – which party is challenging in what county and what ballots they’re going after. Those are all questions I believe reporters could be asking and investigating. And then, if there’s going to be a recount or some kind of audit, is it going to be public? Can the public witness this audit or recount? And that should be – reporters should be in the room when that happens as well.