The Atlantic
Guardian Of The Vote Image Credit: The Atlantic
Guardian Of The Vote Image Credit: The Atlantic

Guardian Of The Vote

Barbara Simons, a pioneering computer scientist, believes there is only one safe voting technology: paper.

Jill Leovy

FOR YEARS, Barbara Simons was the loneliest of Cassandras— a technologist who feared what technology had wrought. Her cause was voting: Specifically, she believed that the electronic systems that had gained favor in the United States after the 2000 presidential election were shoddy, and eminently hackable. She spent years publishing opinion pieces in obscure journals with titles like Municipal World and sending hectoring letters to state officials, always written with the same clipped intensity.

Simons, who is now 76, had been a pioneer in computer science at IBM Research at a time when few women not in the secretarial pool walked its halls. In her retirement, however, she was coming off as a crank. Fellow computer scientists might have heard her out, but to the public officials she needed to win over, the idea that software could be manipulated to rig elections remained a fringe preoccupation. Simons was not dissuaded. “They didn’t know what they were talking about and I did,” she told me.

She wrote more articles, wrote a book, badgered policymakers, made “a pain of myself.” Though a liberal who had first examined voting systems under the Clinton administration, she did battle with the League of Women Voters (of which she is a member), the ACLU, and other progressive organizations that had endorsed paperless voting, largely on the grounds that electronic systems offered greater access to voters with disabiliti


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