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Electronic Voting Systems Are Buggy But Needed

March 19, 2019, 3:08 PM UTC

The security of electronic voting systems has become a hot button issue in recent years. Just last week researchers disclosed that they uncovered a critical flaw in an electronic voting system Switzerland plans to roll out. The vulnerability, which the system’s developers acknowledged and said they will fix, would allow an attacker to manipulate votes undetected. The Swiss government said it still planned to use the system in upcoming elections, including one slated for later this month.

“Let us not downplay this,” commented Sarah Jamie Lewis, one of the bug-discoverers and an executive director of the Open Privacy Research Society, a Canadian non-profit, in a post on Twitter. “This code is intended to secure national elections. Election security has a direct impact on the distribution of power within a democracy. The public has a right to know everything about the design and implementation of the system.”

Lewis broadcasted her findings rather than privately reporting them to the relevant authorities and keeping quiet, as a Swiss government bug bounty program stipulated. She framed her decision as a matter of principle: In a democracy, everyone deserves to know about issues that could potentially affect elections. Now she is alleging that the voting software contains other unfixed bugs, though they are less serious than the headline-grabbing flaw. She is urging the Swiss government to reconsider adopting the technology until “many critical questions have been answered.”

Caution would seem prudent—but some government officials and political fixers are prepared to take a risk. At a panel at SXSW this weekend, I listened to Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist and former campaign manager for Mike Bloomberg, evangelize the benefits of electronic, mobile voting, which he said can open electoral access to disenfranchised populations. Another panelist, Andre McGregor, a former FBI agent, said electronic voting could help solve problems that plague the existing paper-based ballot system, including 3% margins of error in machine-read votes.

Experiments are already underway in the United States. After the panel, West Virginian Secretary of State Mac Warner told me he decided to stick his neck out last year and pioneer an electronic, blockchain-based system in his home state after recalling his own past experiences attempting to vote overseas while serving in the military. War-fighters have very low participation rates in elections because the process is so poorly set up, he said. Electronic voting systems can help give a voice to people who absolutely should have a say in the country’s direction as well as its foreign policy, he said.

Though electronic voting systems will never be 100%, completely safe—all software contains bugs—they have many benefits that make them worth exploring. Delicately.

A version of this article first appeared in Cyber Saturday, the weekend edition of Fortune’s tech newsletter Data Sheet. Sign up here.