Voting Online Means You’re Giving Up Privacy, Researchers Warn

There's a reason each state makes you sign away your voting privacy rights to register to vote online

Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Aug 18, 2016 at 12:00 PM ET

Online voting—currently a limited option in 32 states and Washington, D.C.—usually forces voters to give up their legal right to a guaranteed private ballot, a new study shows.

The study, a joint effort by nonprofit advocacy groups including Common Cause, the Verified Voting Foundation, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, notes that a right to a guaranteed private ballot is the law in every state in the U.S., and that in all but six, it’s protected by a state constitution—specifically because the integrity of a vote is predicated on the voter’s trust that they’re making their decision in private. Alabama’s Constitution reads, for instance, that “The right of individuals to vote by secret ballot is fundamental.”

But in the states that offer online voting, usually reserved for absentee voters and members of the military serving overseas, technical limitations for authenticating votes require voters to voluntarily to waive that right.

Widespread adoption of online voting has been a pipe dream in the U.S. for years. But experts agree that the mechanics of the government actually instituting a reliable online portal for each state is a monumental task—consider, for instance, the Obamacare website, which in 2013 cost $634 million and took months before it was fully operational. Such a system would also need to be trusted to be so secure that Americans could stake their elections on it. That’s a tall order, considering how severely foreign attackers have recently breached both the Democratic National Committee and the government’s own Office of Personnel Management.

Those risks are made clear by a warning presented to users in Alaska, the only state that allows online voting to every absentee voter: “[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.”

So what’s the solution? The study’s authors recommend that at least for now, American voters should simply eschew online voting entirely. “Even if offered, avoid the use of an online method for marking and/or transmitting votes. Marking ballots without the use of a connection to the Internet is the best way to keep your vote secret,” the study concludes.