Online Voting: Security Threat or Wave of the Future?

Updated September 13, 2022

We explore the future of online voting as well as the potential security threats and benefits that it poses.

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A woman uses a digital tablet to review her ballot and vote online in the comfort of her home. Image Credit: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images Credit: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

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.

TIMELINE OF VOTING METHODS AND TECHNOLOGIES

1776:
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.
1858:
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.
1864:
Approximately 150,000 Union soldiers cast absentee ballots during the Civil War, marking the first use of mail-in voting in U.S. history.
1888:
The standardized "Australian ballot" method reaches the United States when New York and Massachusetts adopt it.
1889:
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.
1930:
Practically every major American city uses the Myers Automatic Booth or a similar equivalent.
1962:
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.
1964:
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.
1974:
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.
1982:
A new generation of optical scanning technologies debuts when Nebraska adopts a central-count ballot tabulator machine produced by American Information Systems.
1990:
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.
1993:
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.
1996:
The Reform Party allows voters not in attendance at the national convention to cast ballots for their preferred primary candidate over the internet.
2000:
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.
2002:
President Bush signs the Help America Vote Act into law, instituting sweeping election administration standards and guidelines for the use of voting technologies.
2020:
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.

"You know how we should vote? On paper. It's the only way we should ever vote." - Debra Cleaver

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.

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