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In 2016, people are increasingly doing everything online. Dating has moved to Tinder, your bank is now a smartphone app, and schoolyard bullies are basically giving virtual wedgies. In that respect, it may seem odd online voting hasn’t become ubiquitous; however, a new report shows that electronic voting is fraught with problems.
According to the report, released this week by a trio of nonprofit organizations—the Verified Voting Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and Common Cause—online voting systems necessarily create a link between a voter and his or ballot. That link runs counter to the system of secret ballots the United States has almost universally employed for well over a century.
Entitled Secret Ballot At Risk: Recommendations for Protecting Democracy, the report notes that 32 states, along with the District of Columbia, employ some form of online voting. Only Alaska allows all of its citizens to vote online; most other states restrict the privilege to active U.S. service members stationed overseas.
“Because of current technological limitations, and the unique challenges of running public elections, it is impossible to maintain separation of voters’ identities from their votes when Internet voting is used,” the report charges. “The authors believe that Internet voting creates a second-class system for some voters – one in which their votes may not be private and their ballots may be altered without their knowledge.”
The report examined the laws in each of the states that offer some form of online voting. It found that 28 of those states require voters to sign a document waiving their right to a secret ballot. The majority of the remaining states do not acknowledge the issue. The state of Montana, the authors note, “has a statutory requirement that votes cast over the Internet ‘remain secret’ as required by the state constitution, despite the fact that this is technologically impossible.”
From a technical perspective, it is incredibly difficult to confirm and then strip away all traces of a voter’s identity from an online ballot while also ensuring that their vote is being recorded and transmitted accurately.
“Our concern lies with the transmission of marked ballots via the Internet. Internet voting will erode voter privacy and threaten election integrity,” the report notes. “We need look no further than the warning all Alaska voters receive if they use the online voting system to cast their absentee ballots. Alaska acknowledges that the system is insecure and may not work, warning voters that ‘[w]hen returning the ballot through the secure online delivery system, your [sic] are voluntarily waving [sic] your right to a secret ballot and are assuming the risk that a faulty transmission may occur.’”
The first government entity in the U.S. to adopt secret ballots was the municipality of Louisville, Kentucky, back in 1888. Within the next decade, nearly every state in the union was doing the same. Before the widespread use of secret ballots, voters in the United States were regularly subjected to coercion, and the outright selling of votes was a common practice.
“If the secret ballot goes away, think about [what could happen in places where] employees and employers may not share the same political views,” Electronic Privacy Information Center Chief Technology Officer Caitriona Fitzgerald, one of the report’s co-authors, told the Daily Dot. “Maybe the CEO has donated to a political candidate and then has the ability to check how his or her employees voted and they could be worried about their jobs. That affects their freedom to vote as they choose.”
The same could hold true to members of the military, the most frequent users of the U.S.’s current online voting systems, who the authors worry could feel pressure to vote one way or the other if they suspect their superiors can see how they vote.
There are other instances in which states allow people, after signing a waiver, to fill out ballots that are truly secret. For example, all 50 states allow waivers for people with disabilities to obtain assistance from another person in the voting booth.
Concerns about ballot secrecy are not the only hesitation shared by experts. In fact, the most commonly voiced concerns have to do with the ability to secure online voting systems against cyberattacks. The fear is that by installing malware on users’ devices or intercepting virtual ballots in transit to the online voting system’s servers, hackers could change votes on a massive scale, and the attack would likely be undetectable.
“The technology is just too insecure to entrust such an important right of American people to that insecure technology,” said Bruce McConnell, global vice president and cyberspace program manager at the EastWest Institute and former deputy under secretary for cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security, told the Daily Dot.
Estonia is the only country in the world that has wholeheartedly embraced online voting. Voting over the internet is an option open to everyone in the Eastern European nation, and over 25 percent of Estonians cast their votes online. However, when a team of computer scientists at the University of Michigan looked into Estonia’s system, they found a whole host of vulnerabilities.
“What we found alarmed us,” the Michigan team wrote in their 2014 report, which urged Estonia to abandon the system entirely. “There were staggering gaps in procedural and operational security, and the architecture of the system leaves it open to cyberattacks from foreign powers, such as Russia. These attacks could alter votes or leave election outcomes in dispute. We have confirmed these attacks in our lab—they are real threats.”
When it comes to U.S. servicemembers serving overseas, where getting a ballot delivered can be difficult, Fitzgerald notes that there’s already a much better solution already available that doesn’t carry the same privacy or security risks. Through the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act passed by Congress in 2009, members of the U.S Armed Forces can have a blank ballot emailed to them, which they then fill out and send back. While the postal system is still involved, the physical transit is cut in half and the MOVE ACT mandated expedited mail service for the ballots.
“[This system] is superior because it protects the voters’ privacy,” Fitzgerald insisted. “There’s not a privacy risk when they’re receiving the blank ballot electronically that there is when they’re submitting their marked ballot.”
Aaron Sankin is a former Senior Staff Writer at the Daily Dot who covered the intersection of politics, technology, online privacy, Twitter bots, and the role of dank memes in popular culture. He lives in Seattle, Washington. He joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2016.