Why Online Voting May Never (Ever) Become a Thing

March 31, 2017 • Blog Post • BY DAN SOLOMON, WIRED BRAND LAB


  • No room for error: experts explain why the cons of online voting still greatly outweigh the pros

In high-tech democracies, basic citizenship functions just cant shed the paper trail

As the 2016 presidential election nears, its easy to wonder: How is it possible that so much of our lives (and so much of the candidates respective campaigns) are lived online, but its still not possible for allAmericansto vote via smartphone or laptop?

The simple answer comes down to security. And, as seen in recentreports of voter data hacks in Arizona and Illinois, securing voter informationfrom registration to resultsisnt an easy task.

Many push for online voting (after all, we can now register to vote online) since it could promise increased accessibility for citizens far from polling locations. But computer science researchers warn that even in countries where online voting exists, problems persist. Once these sensitive processes go online, a slew of issues arise that are more severe than a suspended chadsnamely, verification and accuracy.

No room for error

In terms of online voting, researchers say the cons continue to outweigh the pros. And while there issome very sensitive information floating around the internet these days (social security numbers, bank statements and the like), its much more difficult to identify a breach during the voting process than it is a compromised checking account.

Internet voting is different from other things you do online because ballot secrecy means you cant save certain kinds of records, says David Dill, professor of computer science at Stanford. So if a ballot gets changed by a virus or malware, theres no way the voter will know. The scariest thing about internet voting is that there could be mistakes or fraud in the election result, and there would be no way to know.

Dill, who has studied the challenges of electronic voting for years, says that even though countries that offer online voting have made some significantheadway with things likevoter verification technology, they have a long way to go to perfect the whole process.Estonia, for one,first rolled out online voting in 2005, while India and Switzerland have experimented with small-scale trials.

Estonians claim that having a national identity card makes all the difference, but verifying the identity of the voter is a small part of the problem, Dill cautions. How do you know that all of the software on your phone or PC is bug-free and honest?

Chances are its the opposite. Dill says that instead of improving democracy, online voting with current technology could actually endanger it.

The elusive virtual ballot

Widespread online voting seems to be a more difficult proposition for the near future than, say, changing your name on an ID card online through the DMV. Which, as Dill pointed out, would hold less secrecy than a ballot, so breaches could be detected sooner.

According to Rob Roy, HPE Securitys federal chief technology officer, it might be possible to create more secure systemseven if they cant be auditedto ensurevoters trust the final tally is accurate and that every vote counted. But doing so in a way that would allow a hundred million American voters to participate in the process would come at no small price.

The government creates what I would call highly-protected mission systemsthe type used in the military, perhaps. But the more security you put on something, like military technology, the higher the cost associated with it, Roy says.

And unlike technologies that get less expensive the more theyre invested in, Roy says that the threats facing online voting would keep the cost high for some time. Its definitely not something that would get less expensive, simply because wed have to keep building better mousetraps to thwart cyber criminals.

The irony of online voting is palpable:The more a person knows about technology and cybersecurity, it seems, the more likely they are to propose low-tech solutions to citizenship activities, such as voting, in order to ensureno margin for error.

A majority of researchers agree that youve got to get something physically marked in order to audit the vote in case of a close race or fraud concerns, Roy says. So does that mean the best option is to vote with paper and pencil?

Some would say that, he laughs. Or along with proof of identity, maybe a little purple indelible ink on your finger as you walk out of the voting booth, so you cant do it more than once.