Online Voting: Security Threat or Wave of the Future?
| ComputerScience.org Staff Modified on March 18, 2022
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The COVID-19 virus thrust conversations surrounding alternative voting methods into the national spotlight in 2020, as the United States grappled with an unprecedented pandemic during an election year. The virus's rapid, global spread left government leaders, health officials, and the public wondering about the safety of traditional in-person voting. This brought renewed attention to emerging election technologies, such as online voting, which could offer a potential solution to health, security, and voter access challenges.
Even so, experts anticipate a large voter turnout — but not without pitfalls.
"I have no doubt that we're going to have record-high turnout, and I think it will be matched with record shenanigans," VoteAmerica founder and CEO Debra Cleaver said in an interview. "Or just record numbers of issues at the polls."
Cleaver said it's always challenging to process the votes in high-turnout elections, but this year's shortage of polling stations due to the pandemic will likely exacerbate those challenges for the 2020 election. Concerns like Cleaver's have brought renewed attention to emerging election technologies, such as online voting, which could offer a potential solution to health, security, and voter access challenges.
"Technologically, we are getting closer, but politically, not so much. Look to individual states to act as 'petri dishes' as they experiment with different types of mobile or online voting." - John Dickson
Online voting already has a precedent in the United States. In the early 2000s, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) authorized several limited-scale online voting trials for military personnel stationed overseas. The Republican Party also allowed a few remote Alaskan residents to vote online during a 2000 straw poll, and that same year, the Democratic Party offered online voting to its members during the Arizona primary.
Internationally, the Baltic European country of Estonia has made groundbreaking use of election technologies since 2005, serving as a widely cited model for other countries considering similar systems. However, online voting continues to face obstacles and barriers in the United States and other countries, largely due to unresolved concerns about cybersecurity and election integrity.
Cleaver shared in these concerns, saying the internet is not secure enough to host elections.
"You know how we should vote?" Cleaver asked. "On paper. It's the only way we should ever vote. Online registration is fine. The stakes are low -- but online voting? No, the stakes are too high."
Even so, many experts believe online voting will inevitably become the norm in the United States and elsewhere as technologies become more advanced, reliable, and secure. While the practice offers many potential advantages, it also carries considerable drawbacks and pitfalls, which election officials must address before online election systems become broadly feasible.
The Evolution of Voting Technology
As historians note, fair elections function as a critical foundation of American democracy, but the U.S. Constitution does not prescribe specific ballot-casting processes. Thus, voting methods and technologies have changed dramatically over the course of U.S. history, evolving from a public spectacle into a private process using specialized machines.
- Eligible electors cast their votes using the "voice voting" system in most states. Voters report in person to their local courthouse, where a clerk swears them in. They then indicate their chosen candidates aloud, and the clerk records their votes.
- Early 1800s:
- American political parties begin issuing their own paper ballots, informally known as "tickets," which replace the early paper balloting systems that allowed voters to write in the names of their chosen candidates. Partisan tickets become widely used but cause confidentiality issues, which would become problematic as the nation's political mood polarized leading up to the Civil War.
- Australia creates the world's first uniform, government-issued paper ballots, launching a trend that would become standard in many democracies over the ensuing decades.
- Approximately 150,000 Union soldiers cast absentee ballots during the Civil War, marking the first use of mail-in voting in U.S. history.
- The standardized "Australian ballot" method reaches the United States when New York and Massachusetts adopt it.
- Rochester, New York-based inventor Jacob H. Myers files a patent for the Myers Automatic Booth, a lever-based voting system, which improves efficiency and security. The machine enables officials to tabulate votes more quickly and reduces election fraud related to vote-counting and tabulation.
- Practically every major American city uses the Myers Automatic Booth or a similar equivalent.
- Kern City, California becomes the first U.S. jurisdiction to allow a mark-sense optical scanning voting system. Electronic voting technologies gain increasing favor as a solution to the mechanical issues that problematized lever-based voting machines.
- Georgia's Fulton and DeKalb Counties become the first American jurisdictions to use punch cards and computerized vote-counting systems. These advancements facilitate instant vote tabulation, allowing nearly real-time tracking of candidate standings.
- A group of inventors obtain a patent for a direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machine, which enables voters to select candidates from a screen using buttons. The "Video Voter" is first used in an election the following year.
- A new generation of optical scanning technologies debuts when Nebraska adopts a central-count ballot tabulator machine produced by American Information Systems.
- The Federal Election Commission (FEC) adopts its first set of formal guidelines for the use of punch-card, optical scanning, and DRE voting systems. The guidelines become collectively known as the FEC's Voting Systems Standards.
- President Bill Clinton signs the National Voter Registration Act into law, reforming and simplifying the voter registration process to allow electors to register by post, at local government offices, and at Department of Motor Vehicles outlets.
- The Reform Party allows voters not in attendance at the national convention to cast ballots for their preferred primary candidate over the internet.
- Problems with punch-card ballots overshadow the presidential election that put George W. Bush in office. Issues with "chads," the small, scored sections of ballots where voters indicate their chosen candidate, draw major scrutiny.
- President Bush signs the Help America Vote Act into law, instituting sweeping election administration standards and guidelines for the use of voting technologies.
- The COVID-19 pandemic prompts proposals to dramatically increase the use of mail-in voting during the November elections.
Today’s Voting Technology
Today, most American voters cast their ballots using optical scanning systems or DRE devices. Optical scanning systems allow electors to indicate machine-readable choices on paper ballots, while DREs use button-based or touchscreen technologies to register and store voters' selections. According to Pew Research Center data from the 2016 election cycle, about 94% of registered voters live in jurisdictions that use optical scanners, DREs, or both.
Technology also plays a significant role in the processes governing voter registration and data tracking. Many states now use electronic poll books powered by specialized database management software to track voter rolls. Geographic information systems track voter data, while various imaging, data storage, and networking technologies register, record, and relay vote counts to election officials.
Mail balloting systems offer a low-tech alternative. U.S. states employ two types of mail balloting systems: absentee balloting and universal vote by mail. Absentee balloting, the more popular of the two systems, requires eligible electors to request mail-in ballots from their respective local election authorities. States with universal vote-by-mail systems automatically mail ballots to all voters. In both systems, voters fill in and sign their ballots and return them by mail. Officials verify these ballots before releasing them for tabulation.
Online resources also help educate voters and prepare them to participate in election day. VoteAmerica emphasizes the importance of social media as a voter education tool, and the internet also functions as a vital medium through which electors can confirm their registration status and find information about local polling stations.
VOTER REGISTRATION TOOLS
What Would Online Voting Look Like?
In 2020, some voters in states including West Virginia and Delaware used online technologies to cast ballots during primaries. Experts and authorities — including the FBI, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and the Election Assistance Commission — issued a warning regarding the risks of online voting, which mainly relate to cybersecurity and hacking. Even so, the advancement prompted speculation about what internet voting might look like if rolled out on a nationwide scale.
Cleaver, for one, said we probably shouldn't even bank online, let alone vote online.
"This is not 'American Idol,'" she said. "This is the fate of the free world."
ONLINE VOTING: THE VOTER'S VIEW
In an interview, John Dickson, principal at the cybersecurity firm Denim Group, said that U.S. politics create a barrier to making online voting a reality.
"Technologically, we are getting closer, but politically, not so much," Dickson said. "Look to individual states to act as 'petri dishes' as they experiment with different types of mobile or online voting."
Federal agencies including the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) and the DOD have already conducted extensive pilot tests of internet voting. Such projects offer an intriguing glimpse into how an online election might work in the United States.
One such test, conducted in 2000, involved a specialized, secure internet browser plug-in, which contained electronic ballots and certification technologies to confirm each voter's identity.
BEHIND THE SCENES OF AN ONLINE ELECTION
Using this system pilot-tested by FVAP, voters would fill in their ballots online using the browser plug-in and a specific browser with strong encryption. They would then transmit the ballots back to election officials using advanced encryption systems, equipped with multiple cybersecurity technologies designed to detect any intrusion attempts.
Local election officials would use specific protocols to tabulate the online votes and safeguard election integrity. These officials were stationed at terminals with access to the FVAP server, which received voters' encrypted, completed ballots. Officials would decrypt the ballots, create backup hard copies of voting results as they came in, and transcribe the results.
With cybersecurity improvements, online elections could eventually become completely automated using methods such as the one FVAP tested in 2000.
"If done correctly, the tabulation and reporting of the vote will be more straightforward, as it will be 100% electronic," Dickson said. "No more 'hanging chads' or election officials counting ballots late at night."
INTERACTIONS BETWEEN TRADITIONAL AND INTERNET-BASED VOTING
In theory, online voting would coexist with established voting methods — such as in-person and mail-in voting — at least initially. According to Dickson, an online-voting world would draw lots of attention to how states count their in-person, mail-in, and online ballots.
"This most basic aspect of elections will be a focus of post-vote discourse — think 2000 Florida with the hanging chads," Dickson said. "Certain states are more prepared than others to count mail-in ballots. I predict tabulation delays will introduce doubts, which will open up a Pandora's box of legitimacy."
ONLINE VOTING SECURITY
International researchers have conducted extensive studies into internet voting security, drawing on online elections held in countries including Estonia and Australia. One key finding pointed to the network connections linking voters' devices to the servers used to register and store votes. In many cases, these connections contained exploitable security vulnerabilities, which cybercriminals could target.
Many experts believe a great deal of developmental effort should focus on optimizing security for these connections. Estonia uses cryptographic chips placed in citizens' government-issued ID cards, which each voter must scan in a specialized reader attached to their device before voting. Such a system could conceivably work in the U.S., but it would also create new challenges, as many eligible voters do not have government-issued IDs or access to compatible electronic devices.
The Potential Security Risks of Online Voting
According to Dickson, the core problem of internet voting is what security analysts and other cybersecurity professionals call "identity management" — certainty that a voter is who they say they are.
"Several proposals exist to settle on identities," Dickson said. "The most obvious approach is using state drivers' licenses. However, we have much work to do here to agree on a national standard."
The voter access issues accompanying online voting would require practical solutions, as millions of eligible voters lack suitable IDs and/or devices capable of securely handling electronic ballots. Underhanded voter suppression efforts already pose a significant problem, disproportionately impacting people of color and the economically disadvantaged. With internet voting, these issues could take on new forms, aiming to deprive certain demographic groups of access to online voting technologies.
Cybersecurity and hacking also remain pressing issues. Malicious actors could theoretically erase, change, or otherwise sabotage the information entered on voters' electronic ballots.
Some experts believe people could abuse internet election technologies to vote twice, such as by casting one ballot online and another in person or by mail. Cleaver, for example, said online voting would ensure a "160% voter turnout."
"I think it's a great way to let Russia choose our next president," Cleaver said. "So if that is your goal, I think online voting will get you there faster."
Given the notorious accuracy problems plaguing voter rolls and registration systems, election officials would need to implement careful, comprehensive safeguards to prevent and deter such illegal practices.
To that end, Dickson said conversation surrounding election security should move away from the security of voting machines and focus on more realistic ways to undermine an election.
"Hacking voting machines at security conferences, though great entertainment, doesn't represent realistic attack scenarios," Dickson said. "Focus on voting machines — which are only in polls for a limited time — distracts from other, more static components of election infrastructure, such as voter databases or election night reporting websites."
ID Watchdog, a company operated by the credit reporting bureau Equifax, notes that American voters are already subject to a long list of phishing and identity theft scams related to voter surveys, registration, and impersonation. Such scams could evolve in novel ways as elections move to the internet — another potential risk of online voting.
The Potential Benefits of Online Elections
Voting security concerns lead the list of online voting drawbacks, but internet voting could offer many potential advantages as well. Dickson cites ease of access and increased voter participation rates as key examples.
"In theory, we should see voter participation shoot up, as there will no longer be friction associated with voting in person," he said.
Officials and systems analysts could work together to configure inclusive online elections systems. Internet-based voting could benefit rural voters and people with mobility challenges, offering a simpler alternative to absentee ballots and eliminating the need to travel to or navigate physical polling stations. Online voting could also overcome language barriers among voters with limited English proficiency, as internet voting technologies could easily translate electronic ballots and voter instructions into other languages.
Dickson also mused on how online voting could actually improve on existing security standards.
"In theory, with well-thought-out identity management and voting systems backed up by blockchain, a secure voting system is within our grasp," he said. "However, [the Department of Homeland Security] will have to continue to provide technical leadership, and the secretaries of state will have to be willing partners."
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the 2016 election cycle cost taxpayers more than $6.5 billion. The 2018 midterms went on to set a congressional record, running up $5.73 billion in expenses. Online voting could dramatically reduce those figures, automating vote submission and tabulation processes while reducing the number of physical polling stations and staff needed on Election Day.
Is Online Voting Our Future?
U.S. voting systems have historically responded to technological innovations. Experts generally agree that American elections will eventually employ online voting to some degree. Some particularly aggressive predictions claim that it could go mainstream as early as the 2028 election cycle, particularly if the COVID-19 virus continues to pose a serious logistical problem.
Internet-based voting theoretically offers cost-effective, inclusive, and efficient solutions to persistent voter access problems. Properly implemented, digital automation and extensive database cross-checking standards could put an end to issues that have plagued voter rolls and registration processes for decades — such as inaccurate and invalid registrations, the ongoing registration of deceased voters, and voters who register in multiple jurisdictions.
Looking far into the future, online voting might even change the face of governance itself. It could make true direct democracy far more feasible, enabling voters to weigh in on policy questions and critical issues as they arise, rather than limiting citizen participation to biennial and quadrennial election cycles.
The COVID-19 virus may not persist as an issue in future U.S. elections, but it does highlight a critical need to rethink and overhaul the policies and processes that govern voting. But as Dickson noted, while the U.S. may be "getting closer" to online voting from a technological standpoint, roadblocks still exist at the political level. Dickson also called for the development of reliable online voting security solutions before internet-based elections become a widespread reality.
Strong voter turnout and heightened levels of civic engagement function as key drivers of policy innovation. The promise of online voting cannot come to fruition without political willpower, and politicians will only respond if that push comes from voters themselves.
To that end, take advantage of the resources available to you to become a more active voter.
VOTER REGISTRATION TOOLS
ComputerScience.org is proud to partner with VoteAmerica, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that offers a wealth of information and voter empowerment tools to drive voter turnout in 2020. Use the VoteAmerica tools below to equip and inform yourself ahead of Election Day.
MEET THE EXPERTS
John Dickson is an internationally recognized security leader and entrepreneur and a principal at Denim Group, Ltd. He has nearly 20 years' hands-on experience in intrusion detection, network security, and application security in the commercial, public, and military sectors. Dickson is a popular speaker on security at industry venues including the RSA Security Conference, the SANS Institute, and the Open Web Application Security Project. He is a sought-after security expert and regularly contributes to Dark Reading and other security publications. A distinguished fellow of the International Systems Security Association, he has been a certified information systems security professional since 1998. As a Denim Group principal, Dickson helps executives and chief security officers of Fortune 500 companies and government organizations launch and expand their critical application security initiatives.
Feature Image: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images
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