Online Voting Is the Future — And It Could Lead to Absolute Disaster


This year, we're going to choose a new president. We'll debate with disgruntled friends on Facebook, monitor every debate on Twitter and use Google to find polling places. And then, those of us who are willing to make the trek will drive, walk, carpool or take trains to small outposts in order to vote.

It's 2016. Why don't we have an app on our smartphones that allows us to vote remotely and instantly?

It seems so obvious. The same devices many of us use to navigate the world, communicate, shop, bank and date should allow voters to elect people into office. Online voting could give the opportunity to vote to anyone who can't take off work to make it to the ballot box. It could increase accessibility and ease for the disabled.

"It would fit so squarely with how we get our information, form opinions about the world and present our civic beliefs today," Brigade CEO Matt Mahan, whose app provides a social forum for political action, told Mic. "Particularly through younger voters — but all politically and civically interested people — social media is where that conversation takes place."

Why has it taken so long for online voting to enter the election? It's not government laziness. It's not that nobody's trying to realize the promise of online voting. It's that there's a concerted effort to make sure online voting never happens.

Alabama is about to make history


In March, Alabama will give overseas military members the ability to vote in the presidential primaries. For the first time in U.S. history, those absentee voters will have the option of casting their votes over the internet, without having to print out ballots and mail them to the U.S. As of January 6, Alabama had 51 counties committed to using the technology through the voting cycle.

"A number of people have questions, but people had questions about the gasoline-powered automobile," Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill told Mic. "People had questions about the lunar module and people had questions about cellphones. Someone has to take the lead and start doing something different, and put us in a position to make it more efficient and effective."

The resources are available. A handful of companies are trying to build programs that a city or state could purchase for its elections. Alabama is using a service called Everyone Counts, which also facilitated the Academy Awards' first year of online voting.

It's a trend that could catch on. But there is a countervailing force of lawyers, legislators and lobbyists who are doing what they can to fight these initiatives.

These activists are trying to kill online voting before it starts

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What's holding back online voting? In short, security risks. If we've learned anything from the past few years of cybersecurity scandals — like the Office of Personnel Management hack, the Sony Pictures Entertainment fiasco or the Ashley Madison breach — it's that no digital system can be proven to be totally safe. 

There's a common refrain that digital voting experts are tired of hearing: "If I can bank online, why can't I vote online?" If the internet is safe enough to store our money, shop, file our taxes and perform other sensitive tasks, why can't it be used to vote?

The truth is, we don't bank or shop safely online. Major retailers and banking systems deal with hacking, fraudulent charges and identity theft every day. Companies like Amazon are used to a small percentage of transactions being fraudulent. And when fraud occurs in a financial transaction, those problems can be fixed after the fact.

"If I have a problem on my bank statement, I call my bank and they give me my money back, because my name is attached to an account and my identity is associated with the transaction," Pamela Smith, president of anti-online-voting lobbying group Verified Voting, told Mic. "When you vote, that vote isn't associated with your identity. So if you're at a polling place, they don't connect how you voted with your sign-in. They know you showed up, but not how you voted."

Voting has to be anonymous. Once a ballot is cast, it can't be tracked back to the original voter without violating the sanctity of voter anonymity.

This is the problem voting has that banking and retail do not: the "audit trail." If something goes wrong with a purchase, you can retrace that purchase between the bank, vendor and customer to see where something went wrong. But voting has to be anonymous: Once a ballot is cast, it can't be tracked back to the original voter without violating the sanctity of voter anonymity.

"Voting is a situation with two hands," Ed Gerck, a computer scientist who has been trying to solve the online voting problem from a logistical perspective since the '90s, told Mic. "In one hand, you know who the voter is; they're qualified, and they're allowed to vote. In the other, you have the ballot, which must be correct. But you cannot link the ballot to the voter."

The hand-off, where a person submits his or her ballot using a phone or a computer and sends it to a digital ballot box, is where mischief can occur, because hackers could theoretically manipulate votes without ever alerting election officials that the system has been compromised. They could do it from anywhere in the world. Even given an airtight voting system (hypothetically), malware on the phone or computer used to vote could manipulate the device to give faulty inputs.

The real reason no one's hacked online voting yet

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So far, there have been a few test runs for online voting. Small pilots for Internet voting systems have decided elections in Denver and Honolulu; before Alabama decided to let overseas military vote online, it successfully used the same system for elections in Montgomery in 2015, according to Merrill.

Arguably, because the pilot programs were so small, it's too soon to determine if these systems are safe. The voting services for local elections don't have the same appeal to hackers as systems that could handle thousands of separate counties and cities across the country. 

In other words, one reason these systems haven't yet shown signs of being hacked is because no one cares enough to try. Federal elections don't rely on them.

"As soon as large numbers of people are allowed to vote online, all of the sudden the attack surface is much greater," David Jefferson, a computer scientist and digital voting researcher, told Mic. "If I thought we could allow it for a very small number of people who really needed it, I could live with that, but that's not what people are advocating."

Once more cities and states decide to take up online voting, each will have to select its own vendor and set up online voting for its district, creating thousands of dispersed opportunities for a breach. And then the transparency problems roll in.

Handing over election technology to tech companies surrenders the voting process to private, corporate control. The companies will demand trust without letting the public vet the technology, peek into the source code or see behind the curtain into the inner workings of the programs that count the ballots.

The big, dangerous, hypothetical risks

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Alabama's system, Everyone Counts, has been put through rigorous testing from mammoth security companies like PricewaterhouseCoopers. Everyone Counts lets the districts that use it vet the technology themselves or hire an outside contractor to test the security of the system. Alabama's system, as far as Alabama can discern, has been rock-solid for years. Everyone Counts has never put the system up for a public, free-for-all penetration test, but Merrill says he isn't worried about a security breach.

The looming hypotheticals and doomsday scenarios are unprecedented in the United States. If there were a breach, it could come from someone outside of of U.S. jurisdiction, even a state-level foreign aggressor. That's if we could verify it at all. Hackers are tough to track — we're still left wondering who's responsible for the 2014 Sony hacking fiasco. And unlike a bank transaction that can be corrected by instant accounting, imagine this same system applying to the presidential election. If Hillary Clinton wins in 2016 and, months later, the discovery of a breach reverses the results, what would happen? It would be a legal nightmare without precedent.

If Hillary Clinton wins in 2016 and, months later, the discovery of a breach reverses the results, what would happen? It would be a legal nightmare without precedent.

Online voting "also opens the door to massive vote buying and selling," Jefferson told Mic. "If you're voting from a private computer with malware that can verify your votes, a voter can allow someone to see how they voted, and then allow $50 in bitcoin for voting how someone else wants."

Of course, paper systems aren't without their own litany of issues. Every election cycle, there are polling places that experience machine problems or counting errors. (Remember Florida's famous hanging chads in 2000?) This also goes for electronic voting machines that take digital inputs but aren't necessarily hooked up to the internet. There are dozens of voting solutions, from punch-card levers to touch-screen inputs, for each district to choose from; a single, centralized voting solution is prohibited by the Constitution.

And because each little district can make that choice for itself, all of this talk of security issues could be irrelevant if, like in Alabama, someone just decides to go ahead and bring voting online anyway.

Accessibility is key

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Not all voters have equal opportunity to get to the polls, and in Alabama, overseas soldiers are going to be the only ones who get to vote online.

For now, Merrill says he has "no interest" in offering online voting to people at home in Alabama, who he says don't need the added convenience and can get up off their couch. 

But access to the polls here in the U.S. isn't just an issue of laziness. There are people who don't have adequate transportation or can't afford to take a day off from work.

For some people, online voting isn't just an added luxury, it's the best way for them to vote.

Lawyer Michael Nunez is representing the California Council of the Blind against the county of San Mateo. The group is suing the county for not providing an adequate voting solution for blind voters. Submitting a vote on paper and by mail is common for people who can't make it out to ballots — this is what voters with disabilities in Alabama are expected to do in the upcoming election cycle. "That's not an answer for blind voters," Nunez told Mic. "Maybe for people with other disabilities, who can read or mark a ballot on their own, but not for a blind voter."

For some people, online voting isn't just an added luxury, it's the best way for them to vote.

Nunez says that because of the proliferation of both computers and screen reading technology, voting by a computer is actually the best way for a blind person to vote without compromising their ability to vote privately.

For the leaps and bounds it would offer in accessibility, not everyone in the United States has internet. Though the disparity of internet users across income and education is shrinking, only 84% of American adults are internet users. Where online voting is offered so far, it's being used to supplement paper voting instead of replacing it. But it's worth noting that although online voting can increase access for those who can't make it to the polls, it offers a different brand of limited access to those without internet — even now, the predominantly poor and uneducated.

Points of need, exemplified by Alabama's military and the California Council for the Blind, will bring about the first forays into online voting. But the providers of the technology, the optimists in government and the activists for accessibility are sure that the moment will come eventually when the rest of us can submit our votes with the tap of a touchscreen button.

"There's a huge lobby against electronic voting, and what they're saying is that they expect perfection before they allow mediocrity to get better," Lori Steele Contorer, the CEO of Everyone Counts, told Mic. "The way our voting system works today is full of error and fraud. To say you're willing to keep the system the way it is until the next system is perfect is absurd."