Security Risks Still Plague Online Voting

Why are we letting people fax and e-mail insecure ballots?

Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Nov 02, 2016 at 3:45 PM ET

Thanks to the rhetoric of a certain alarmist candidate, there’s been more talk than ever before this cycle about the election being “rigged.” Donald Trump’s fear mongering is largely fantastical; experts say it’s highly unlikely that an election of this size could be swayed by an outside influence. But, there is a flaw in a part of our election system, it’s just not with pro-Hillary immigrants sneaking into polling places: it’s with online voting.

While online voting sounds like a great way to end the notoriously awful lines at the polls and increase voter turnout, the technology isn’t nearly as secure as experts say it needs to be. Not that it keeps the U.S. from allowing people to cast their votes this way. At present, 26 states allow for some method of web-based voting for qualified voters, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another six states allow some voters to fax their ballots.

Only a tiny percentage of Americans are eligible vote this way. Most of them are covered under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, which was created to allow members of the armed forces stationed overseas and their families as well as expatriates to vote via absentee ballots. Some states have even more stringent rules about which UOCAVA voters can cast ballots online or via fax. In addition to these Americans living abroad, other citizens eligible to vote online include permanent absentee voters from Hawaii, Idaho citizens directly affected by a “national or local emergency” as declared by the secretary of state, Utah residents with disabilities, and all Alaskans (as of this year).

While that adds up to a small percentage of the electorate, it’s not no one: A government study found that of the 202 million registered and eligible voters during the 2012 federal election, 1 percent were covered by UOCAVA. It’s unclear how many of those one million voters cast their ballots online, but considering the size of that bloc, the fact that there are over 519,000 voting-eligible persons in Alaska, and that 8.7 percent of Utah’s population between the ages of 21 and 64 alone have disabilities, hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens could vote online this election.

The security of those votes is far from certain. In Alaska, where all voters were given the option to go digital in 2012 due to the vastness of the state, voters are warned upfront that when they submit a faxed or electronically-transmitted ballot they are “voluntarily waiving [the] right to a secret ballot and are assuming the risk that a faulty transmission may occur.” According to a recent report from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Verified Voting Foundation, and Common Cause Education Fund, this type of privacy waiver can be observed across 28 of the states that allow voters to cast their votes online, causing the authors of that report to advise would-be online voters to simply refrain from voting at all.

It’s important to not that there haven’t been any recorded instances of foul play within votes tabulated this way yet. But, security worries persist. A mock internet voting pilot for a project that was intended to create a means for overseas voters registered in Washington D.C. to vote proved hackable after only 48 hours. The hackers, who’d been asked to try to find flaws, were able to change every vote and reveal almost every secret ballot. When Utah Republicans voted in the caucuses in March using an online system, nearly one-third of those who attempted to vote this way were unable to do so. And in the few countries that do conduct online voting, like Australia, Canada, Estonia, Finland, France, and Norway, numerous issues have been discovered.

Existing warnings and our apparent inability to secure the mechanisms needed for widespread online voting mean that it’s highly unlikely the majority of us will be electing a president via web form in the relatively near future. That said, it’s an area of vast potential for increased voter turnout when (or, rather, if) online voting technology in the U.S. is deemed suitable: a recent poll found that nearly half of all millennials felt an online system could encourage them to vote, and an inability to get to the polls (for various reasons) was the most common reason eligible voters did not participate in the 2012 election.