Can You Vote Online? Not Safely

With the midterm elections upon us and being almost 15 years into the 21st century, why are we still using an archaic, paper voting system? Let’s get the vote online already. Unfortunately, experts say online voting is unsafe and won’t be ready to roll out any time soon. But, if we shop online and bank online, why can’t we vote online? Voting online isn’t secure. “Letting people vote with their own devices is essentially exposing the electoral process to the same bands of organized, sophisticated cybercriminals who have been exploiting security flaws to steal identities and clear out bank accounts for decades now,” says Geoff Duncan of in his article, It’s the 21st Century, Why Aren’t We Voting Online Yet?.1 Cyber criminals can steal and alter online data in countless ways. They could use many of those techniques to rig an election electronically. Hackers could upload a virus that disables your computer so you can’t vote. They could make one that makes you think you voted but the vote never actually gets included in the tally.2 They could make one that simply switches enough votes to change the outcome. Even the most advanced security software can’t stop them all, because we can’t think of them all. Security software is designed to detect computer malware and viruses attempting to access secure data, but it can only detect things it recognizes as potentially harmful. Hackers develop new and more advanced programs all the time which means the security software is always behind because you can’t design software to detect something you don’t know exists. Computer security is like drug testing. You can test for the drugs you know about and you can even test for the masking agents of those drugs, but your test won’t find traces of a drug it wasn’t designed to detect. How could it? Some online security programs can learn and evolve to detect problems they weren’t originally designed to detect, but guaranteeing an evolving security program will be aware of the specific type of attack a hacker uses – especially when the attack comes in a form never seen before – is virtually impossible. Due to the nature of testing and detection, security software will always be behind the hackers, leaving any election conducted online susceptible to fraud. A vote must remain anonymous. Anonymity is a fundamental aspect of democratic elections. Without the ability to keep ballots secret, all voters become vulnerable to solicitation and intimidation. With a secret ballot, even if somebody tries to buy your vote or bully you into voting the way they want you to, they have no way of knowing if their tactic actually worked. They aren’t allowed to go into the voting booth with you and once your vote is in the ballot box, they won’t know which vote was yours. When you come out of the polling station you can tell them you voted the way they wanted you to, even if you didn’t. They have no way to confirm it. With online voting, they may be able to find out for whom you voted. People often point to online banking as evidence that we should be able to vote online.3 The anonymous nature required for a fair election is a prime example of why this line of thinking is flawed. Your bank account doesn’t need to remain anonymous. When we do our banking online, we must sign into our financial institution’s website with an account number or password. That’s the only way for your bank’s computer system to recognize you as the account’s owner. Any online voting system would require similar verification to ensure you are who you say you are, you are eligible to vote, and haven’t voted already. Unfortunately, the second you electronically identify yourself, you have compromised your anonymity. Your ballot is no longer secret. Under that scenario, an organization looking to strong-arm you into voting the way they want you to could use tracking software to validate whether you actually did or not. Robbing voters of their anonymity would open the door to intimidation, bullying, and extortion of the electorate, which would undermine the entire election process. The secret ballot is part of the foundation of a legitimate election. Currently, we have no way to verify a voter’s eligibility online without sacrificing his or her anonymity.6 Your vote is more valuable than you realize. Your vote is uniquely yours. While you may vote for the same candidate as many other people, your vote is still yours and yours alone.  Each vote having its own individual value adds to the security problems of online voting. If somebody hacks into your bank account and steals your money, your bank may be able to reimburse you. But reimbursement only works because all dollars are worth the same amount. Votes have different value to different people. A vote represents choice and free will. Many people value free will more than any amount of money. To them, a votes is priceless and irreplaceable. If someone hacks the election software and steals your vote, you can’t be reimbursed for it. You probably wouldn’t even know for whom your stolen vote was cast, but even if you did and you found out the thief still voted for the candidate for whom you intended to vote, you were still robbed of the freedom to choose. The difference between the individual value of a unique vote and the universal value of a unique dollar shows another reason why assuming we should be able to vote online just because we bank online is an error in logic. With online voting, fraud could happen without anyone ever knowing. Smart hackers would alter just enough votes to sway the election the way they desire without drawing suspicion. A group from the University of Michigan already proved such a hack is possible. In 2010, Washington D.C. tested an online voting system designed to allow military and other citizens abroad to vote securely over the Internet. Believing they had solved the security puzzle of online voting, the system’s designers, in conjunction with the Board of Elections that commissioned the software, invited several groups to attempt to hack the system to prove it was safe. A group of grad students at the University of Michigan, led by Professor J. Alex Halderman, successfully hacked the system and eventually elected Bender, the robot from Futurama.4 The Board of Elections didn’t even notice the hack until 36 hours after the students had taken control of the system. They were tipped-off when they began to get emails from several users asking why the Michigan fight song would play after they cast their votes. Along with embedding the fight song in the systems software and rigging the election for a cartoon robot, the group from Michigan also gained control of the security cameras in the Board of Elections building and fended off other hackers attempting to get into the system, including groups from China and Iran.4 Had this been an actual election with online voting, it clearly could have been compromised and the Board of Elections may not even have known. Keeping an online voting portal secure is difficult because it must encompass the entire country. Even if the government were to build an entirely new network of which it had sole control, that network would still have to be at least large enough to service New York and Los Angeles for it to even be worth building. With those cities being on opposite sides of the continent, the network would have to stretch at least that far to be viable. A network that big will inevitably be susceptible to a potential cyber terrorist jacking into it somewhere along the way. A self-contained, secure network might work for a small area that can be constantly guarded, but the sheer landmass of America makes the idea of a completely autonomous network unrealistic. Online voting leaves a lack of tangible ballots. Most of the time, a lack of paper ballots won’t be an issue, but what if it’s a particularly close election, like the presidential election of 2000? What if you suspect some of the votes are fraudulent? How do you do a recount when you don’t have physical votes? Barbara Simons, former Chair of the Association for Computing Machinery U.S. Public Policy Committee and co-author of the book, Broken Ballots warned us about this type of situation in her 2012 Ted Talk, Why Can’t We Vote Online?2 “We must be able, in all the elections we run, to audit and recount the elections. Ballots sent over the Internet are unreliable and therefore, to say that you can recount them is a meaningless statement.” Moving to an online voting system could leave us with a situation where our only source for figuring out who people voted for in a potentially fraudulent election is the system that may have allowed the fraud in the first place. Can you trust a computer tally if you think the computer was compromised? Probably not. Voting online would increase the cost of elections. You might think voting online would be more cost effective than the current system. If the changeover could be instantaneous, you might be right. Unfortunately changing from our current voting system to an online voting system would be a long and possibly never ending process. Having internet access is not a requirement for voter eligibility. Making it so would trample all over voting rights. A 2013 poll conducted by the United State Census showed that as much as 25 percent of American’s still don’t use the Internet regularly.5 So, even if we had the perfect online voting system, we would still need traditional polling places plus all the cost and personnel running them entails. The usage may dwindle over time, but you could never completely eliminate them unless the government gave Internet service to everyone for free. Even then, you still might need to keep the traditional polling places open just in case the online system crashed on election night. For the foreseeable future, developing and implementing an online voting system would only add additional costs to an already overly-expensive process. The long term cost savings would be limited and very slow accrue. Some places already testing online voting. In the face of the challenges laid out in this article, some places are still attempting to make online voting a reality. Markham, Ontario started offering online voting in 2003. Estonia began online voting in 2007. Even in the United States, some states use the Internet for parts of the voting process, like emailing ballots to voters. For military and absentee voters, 35 states allow ballots to be returned electronically. All the examples above are very small operations when compared to the 46,000 electoral jurisdictions that make up the national election in the United States. Some experts think even these limited uses of the Internet in the voting process are unsafe.2 Not all experts agree. Doctor William J. Kelleher believes the process can be made safe and the safety concerns are just fear mongering by some activist computer scientists. He feels testing the safety of online elections should be the responsibility of political scientists, not computer scientists. “If political scientists produced study after study of elections involving online voting in which there were no doubts about the integrity of the results, then the conclusion may be fairly drawn that the integrity of the results can reasonably be trusted,” Kelleher wrote on his blog.3 Whether Kelleher is right or not, it seems very clear that more testing is required before we’ll know if elections with online balloting can be safe. Do your civic duty. The Internet has brought convenience to almost every part of our lives. But, with all the problems the Internet can solve, long polling lines and hanging chads don’t seem to be among them – at least not yet. Maybe the small samples of online voting in Canada and Estonia will be a proving ground for a system that could be expanded to overcome the challenges online voting currently poses. Maybe Dr. Kelleher is right and more testing will lead us to an answer sooner than we think. But, with the information we have today, the risks involved in online voting outweigh the convenience it could offer. Don’t let this news disenfranchise you about your valuable role in the process. We’ve come a long way since voting started in America. If we keep democracy alive long enough, we may just solve the online voting problem.  In the meantime, you should still go out and vote, even if it means standing in line for a while. Resources:
Photo: Flickr/Vox EFX

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With over five years writing about the internet industry, John has developed a deep knowledge of internet providers and technology. Prior to writing professionally, John graduated with a degree in strategic communication from the University of Utah. His education and experience make his writing easy to understand, even when covering complex topics. John’s work has been cited by, PCMag, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and more.

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