Internet voting: A really bad idea whose time has come

Internet voting: A really bad idea whose time has come

Summary: Believe it or not, most states have some provisions for allowing people to vote over the Internet. The pressure is on to expand it, even though a secure online voting system is impossible using today's technology.


The area on the Jersey shore where I grew up was hit very hard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It was many weeks before some of the people could even go home. Life was a mess. And then, a little over a week later, was the 2012 election day.

The state made it clear that they would make whatever accommodations it could to help people vote if they were displaced by the storm. So far, so good, but my ears perked up when I heard about "email voting."

Yes, the state announced that voters could email in a vote. This was part of an effort to make all non-traditional forms of voting, including mail-in and fax, easier. In fact, voters were instructed to ignore the part of the relevant web page where it says "The County Clerk cannot accept faxed or emailed copies of a Application for Vote by Mail Ballot, unless you are a Military or Overseas Voter, since an original signature is required."

But certainly such circumstances were sui generis, and no sane state authority would contemplate Internet voting in the normal course of things, right? Wrong.

As Bruce McConnell and Pamela Smith wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal (paywall): "[O]ver 30 states and territories allow some form of internet voting (such as by email or through a direct portal) for some classes of voters, including members of the military or absentees."

In Alaska, anyone can vote by internet if they ask. The quote from the New Jersey page above indicates that they will accept emailed images of mail-in ballots for military or overseas voters. Utah's Salt Lake County Clerk will be using a new law in that state to allow the disabled to vote by email. Iowa Democratic officials have raised internet voting as a way of boosting turnout of those too lazy to show up, but for now the experiments seem mostly limited to the disabled, military, and others with a good excuse. Many of these allowances for military and overseas voters are pursuant to the Federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.

The whole issue of security in voting is highly controversial even without bringing computers and the internet into it. Merely asking for identification is considered racist by many. But voting over the internet increases the possibility for fraud by many orders of magnitude, and those committing the fraud could be halfway around the world.

Thomas Edison's first patent, #90,646 in 1869, was for an "electrographic" vote-counting device. It was never used (Image: Rutgers University; The Thomas Edison Papers)

Speaking of around the world, Estonia is the current poster child for electronic voting. Estonians at home and around the world can vote online using a national ID card, a smart card. Clearly a system of digital national IDs has no chance of being adopted in the US, but for all its sophistication, the Estonian system is still vulnerable to tampering according to recent research.

In one sense, voting does seem like the sort of thing that should be ideal for the internet. I'm reminded of Ross Perot's ridiculous notion of an "electronic town hall" that could actually replace representative government with direct democracy. I hope that the last 22 years of internet insecurity have shown us what a bad idea that would be.

The best thing you can say about most current online voting provisions is that the numbers of voters are probably small enough that any significant fraud would stand out. Maybe.

But if the goal is to increase participation by making voting easier and easier, then moving it online is just asking for trouble. I doubt there's a way to do it that would provide sufficient confidence. A 2011 study by NIST pretty much said the same.

In fact, it's easy to find research by people who understand computer security pointing out the considerable risks from internet voting. There are other people who would like to increase turnout no matter what and who are happy to declare that all technical problems can be worked out by the experts. Well, the experts have spoken: Internet voting is not and cannot be made secure with current technology.

Topics: Security, Government US

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  • Why is it impossible?

    Americans have been BANKING online for manyyears now that is very secure, safe and reliable! Why is it impossible? Voter creates an account (just like a bank account) with the state/county.. PRESTO! DUMB ARTICLE!
    • Thanks Spanky, you beat me to it.

      If you can trust personal banking (assuming you're using a multi-authentication protocol) handing hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even a few hundred, then there's no reason a similar system can't be implemented with electronic voting.

      The bigggest delay would be the initial set up of each person's voting account. It would NOT be something they just wake up and say, "I think I'll vote today electronically."
      • Remote banking is merely confidential

        The bank knows who you are and what you're doing. But election administrators aren't supposed to know how individuals are voting (it's supposed to be a secret ballot; not just a confidential one).
        John L. Ries
        • RE: Remote banking is merely confidential

          John, what is your position on mail-in voting? It's very popular here (California) with more people voting this way than driving to the polls. Doesn't this suffer the same potential lack of secrecy?
          • It is of concern to me

            I vote absentee ballot only if I absolutely have to. And when I was living in the San Diego backcountry, I insisted on delivering my absentee ballot (my neighborhood was proclaimed "vote by mail") to the polling place in person.

            There are a number concerns with mail-in voting, even if the system is administered correctly:

            1. The chance that the ballot will be intercepted. It's highly illegal to do so and postal workers who engage in it don't just have to worry about losing their jobs (it's a jailing offence), but if you think the only hope for the country is for the Good Guy Party to win by a landslide, you might just be motivated enough to do it anyway.

            2. The potential for vote buying and intimidation (it's completely possible for someone to fill in an absentee ballot in the presence of others.

            3. The possibility that someone will give his absentee ballot to his precinct captain (or some other political authority figure) to fill out on his behalf.

            There are supposed to be procedures in place to make sure that poll workers don't try to find out who voted how, but I'm not in a position to say whether they're followed in all cases.

            But still, voting absentee is better than not voting at all. I've done it before, and will no doubt do it again, but I think voting in person is preferable.
            John L. Ries
          • RE: It is of concern to me

            So obviously this goes directly to the point. People clearly don't have a great concern with absentee voting, even if you personally do. To the contrary people very much prefer it. So we can debate all day if it's sufficiently secret, but the jury is out...people want it. And I predict they will accept online voting as well.
          • More efficient cheating

            At least with mail-in there can be procedures for insuring both eligibility and secrecy simultaneously (at least once the ballot arrives in the clerk's office). That's not possible with Internet voting. And as noted in my subject line, computers can do repetitive tasks a lot faster than humans can; this is both good *and* bad.

            People might accept it, but it's still a disaster waiting to happen.
            John L. Ries
          • RE: More efficient cheating

            We may not agree on everything, but you make very good points. As always.
    • Only one problem

      How do you verify the person has the right to vote? With the problems in the last two elections (Dead people, Illegal Aliens, and Democrats casting votes for "relatives in a coma"). How exactly do you insure this will not be used to "game the system"?
      I hate trolls also
      • RE: Only one problem

        I have no problem with online voting, but to address your point voters should be required to create their account in person. They could vote online from then on. Without biometric identification the issues you site can never be addressed.
        • Even with biometric identification

          the issues can never be addressed.

          Even being present in person is no guarantee - as long as whoever is present has the proper credentials (or good enough forged credentials) they can vote.
          • RE: Even with biometric identification

            Are you saying that people can fool biometric identification?
          • Since fooling biometrics has already been done...

            ...I imagine that is exactly what he is saying.
            The Heretic
          • RE: Since fooling biometrics has already been done...

            Heretic, allow me to rephrase. Clearly all systems can be fooled with enough effort. The key is having a sufficient defense to keep fraud manageable. It's not likely people will be cutting off fingers for the sake of fraudulent voting, wouldn't you agree? And wouldn't you expect biometrics to play a prominent part in fighting identity theft?
          • Ah, but that is only one way to fool it.

            There are others. You don't need to cut off thumbs and fingers.
          • REL Ah, but that is only one way to fool it.

            If you got from my post that cutting off fingers was the only way, that's not the case. That was just an example. It is of course a classical arms race. The proper question is whether not biometrics allows us to be secure enough to get the job done.
          • Why Not?

            Why not say it can be done? It has been done. The example of thumbprint readers comes to mind: at least the early ones could be fooled by Scotch tape picking up a thumbprint. Later ones are harder to fool, but it can be done.

            But there is another attack proponents of biometric voting ID seem to forget about: attack the protocol somewhere else. All too often, when people set up these protocols, they leave a weakness somewhere else in the system. That is where hackers attack.
          • RE: Why Not?

            The application of technology via biometrics or otherwise is not a destination, but a journey. It's a classic arms race. But that's not an argument against using technology.
        • Coercion

          You are not considering the possibility that a voter is being paid or coerced to vote.

          There is no App that prevents someone from standing behind you while you vote online.

          When you vote in a voting place, there are scrutineers present who insure you are alone when you vote.

          Our system is based on Secret Ballot. Online voting would put an end to secret ballot.
          • RE: Coercion

            Since online voting could be done any time or day of the week, would you just wait until you're alone?