Russians hacked an election with Facebook ads. But voting online is safe?
When everyone votes through their phones, the will of Democracy will be protected. There will be no videos of people bringing in boxes of ballots, so no one will doubt the legitimacy of the results.
The faith in Democracy will be stronger.
That’s Our Values and It’s Who We Are.
Terra Muncy has been voting for nearly four decades, but never like she did in last year’s presidential primary: sitting on her front porch, tablet in hand, tapping through the candidates on her screen.
Muncy, 57, who uses a wheelchair, was the first West Virginian with a disability to cast a ballot electronically. State residents who serve in the military or live overseas have been able to use this voting method since 2018.
At traditional polling places, Muncy said, the lines can be confusing, the building crowded and the machines set up above her reach—forcing her to strain her arms and making it difficult for her to shield her screen from onlookers.
“It was super simple,” she said of using her tablet instead. “This gave me an option to have my vote be private.”
See? Online voting is fully endorsed by a random peasant. Peasants and people living overseas love online voting, because they cannot be bothered to go vote in an embassy.
The lines are confusing for peasants, but what’s not confusing for them is who to choose to lead their country.
West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican, is excited that his state now offers internet-based voting as an option for people such as Muncy. In November’s election, nearly 1,600 residents cast their ballot electronically—roughly 270 voters with disabilities and 1,300 military and overseas voters.
“For those people who have been disenfranchised through no fault of their own, if we can extend electronic voting capabilities to them, I think we owe it to them to do so,” Warner told Stateline. Warner, who struggled to vote while serving in Afghanistan, knows this firsthand.
West Virginia is one of nine states where at least some jurisdictions have allowed certain voters to cast their ballots electronically, either through their home computers or through a mobile app. Mostly, election officials have opened this method of voting to residents living abroad, serving in the military or who have a disability.
The premise of online voting—receiving and returning a ballot using a device connected to the internet—is simple, and it is likely to become more popular as technology improves and some election officials seek innovative ways to expand access to the ballot. But an almost unified chorus of election security experts say the setup is ripe for ruin because of threats from malicious hackers.
“There is no level at which internet voting is entirely safe,” said Mark Lindeman, interim co-director of Verified Voting, an election security organization that advocates for voting systems that have a paper trail. “It’s just not ready yet and we don’t know how to get there.”
This past year showed that unexpected events can upend traditional, in-person voting. The rush to mail-in voting during the pandemic also exposed the challenges that voting by mail poses for certain residents, including those with disabilities who may not be able to independently fill out and mail a paper ballot.
But election security experts say electronic voting poses significant risks. Personal devices such as smartphones and laptops are often littered with malware. A ballot could be tampered with on the voter’s device, on its way to a server or on the server of the election authority. Hostile foreign countries or other organized groups could surreptitiously change votes before they’re counted.
While they recognize these concerns, leaders of internet voting companies said their systems are built with sophisticated security measures that have withstood dozens of elections and millions of votes in American and foreign elections. Their goal is to make voting easier.
“Why would we want to do something that would jeopardize democracy?” Nimit Sawhney, founder and CEO of Voatz, told Stateline. In a blog post, the company argued the MIT report was flawed.
Sawhney pointed to his company’s successes last year, despite the criticism. Voatz’s application was used in the general election in two counties in Utah and one in Oregon, without any security breaches, he said.
“In theory, yes, there are threats,” he said. “In practice, there is a way to deflect these threats.”
Finney at Democracy Live said no voting system is perfect. But ones that rely entirely on paper ignore a significant population that needs a more accessible method of casting a ballot.
“Paper is not a panacea,” he said. “We need to have a Plan B for voting in America.”
Amelia Powers Gardner spent three years of her childhood homeless. Her single mom moved her family from motels to couches, in search of a stable home. Her mother is also legally blind.
When Gardner is running elections as the clerk of Utah County, a community an hour south of Salt Lake City, she often thinks about her mother and others who may not have had access to the ballot because of a personal hardship.
When she was elected in 2018, Gardner promised to bring innovation to her office, relying on years running a consulting firm. That included an embrace of online voting for residents who have a disability or are living abroad or serving in the military.
Utah County uses the Voatz app, which satisfies her security standards and, she said, gives voters an alternative to an “antiquated” system that disenfranchises millions of voters. She is required by state law to accept overseas and military ballots electronically. Accepting ballots by email or fax was not secure, she said. Another 30 states and Washington, D.C., have similar laws that require election officials to accept ballots through electronic means, typically by email or fax.
“We looked for a solution,” she said. “We have the ability to serve underserved populations.”
Gardner is now one of the strongest proponents of legislation being considered in Utah that would allow municipalities to offer voters the option to vote online in local elections. Republican state Sen. Curt Bramble, the bill’s sponsor, told Stateline that lawmakers will discuss the measure later this year.
In West Virginia, disability rights advocates worked with state election officials to improve accessibility, said Regina Desmond, a senior advocate at the nonprofit Disability Rights of West Virginia. The group filmed tutorial videos and engaged with voters with disabilities to educate them on the new system.
During last year’s primary, voters who wanted to sign up for an electronic absentee ballot had to fill out a paper form, which can be difficult for certain people with disabilities. The state changed that requirement for the presidential election, allowing voters to request a ballot online.
Warner, West Virginia’s secretary of state, does not support extending online voting to the broader voting population. Voting in person at a polling location with a ballot-marking device with a paper trail remains the safest method, he said. But he is glad to continue offering the Democracy Live online voting option for the limited group of voters who have a disability, live abroad or serve in the military.
Warner wants to encourage other states and federal election officials to set standards and collaborate to make the process better. Last week, he called Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a newly elected Democrat, to share his experience implementing this voting method.
But many election security experts doubt that online voting will ever be widely used. Halderman at the University of Michigan said that states could gradually test some online verification methods for in-person voters. But, he said, as the technology currently stands, it is far too complex for the average voter to understand how to use it.
Comments like that are one of the biggest frustrations for online voting entrepreneurs like Voatz’s Sawhney and Democracy Live’s Finney, who perceive a lack of engagement from election security experts. The entrepreneurs welcome testing and new ideas. They don’t accept the absolutist attitude that voting online will never be secure.
“I didn’t start this company to damage democracy,” Finney said. “We don’t have all the answers. Let’s work together to try to make it stronger. Let’s try to solve the problem.”
Both companies plan to continue building up their capabilities through pilot programs in cities, counties and states. They acknowledge, however, that it will take many years of testing their technology and building public confidence before the voting method will be ready for the broader public. States, they said, will also have to change their laws to allow for more internet-based voting.
It’s a slow, steady approach, Sawhney said, which can be frustrating for a startup that wants to quickly advance technology.
“Unless you try—unless you try to push the needle forward,” he said, “nothing will ever change.”
If online voting is considered a valid and safe enough option for people who are disabled, living abroad, or serving in the military, then it is only a matter of time before they say “hey, we’ve been using this with success with these groups of people, it works.”
This is literally “just let the homos marry, man, they won’t take over society” all over again.
We know how that turned out.