Online voting, called a major risk by security experts, opens up to more voters

Absentee ballot drop box with a sign that says, "Insert ballot here."

If you can’t fill out a paper ballot or turn it in in person, the internet might be able to help. But security researchers say it’s not safe, and access to online voting systems shouldn’t be extended to the general public.

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This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET’s coverage of the run-up to voting in November.

Like many college students away from home, Melissa Carney considered casting an absentee ballot in 2016. Because she’s blind, however, Carney would’ve needed help from a friend to fill out a paper ballot. So, she didn’t vote. 

This year is different. The Pennsylvania voter has access to an online ballot portal that works with her computer’s screen-reading software. She can mark a digital ballot, print it and mail it to her local election office.

“I’m very excited to be able to vote privately and independently, and get in on that excitement that I missed in college,” Carney said. Carney is so enthusiastic about the system that she consults for Democracy Live, the company that makes it.

Carney and other people with disabilities are joining thousands of military and overseas voters who already rely on the internet to exercise their franchise. Since 2009, federal law has required states to provide ballots electronically to military and overseas voters. More than 30 states have gone further, allowing some voters to return marked ballots over the internet, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. More recently, Delaware, West Virginia, Louisiana and Utah have allowed domestic voters with disabilities to return their ballots via fax, email or a web portal.

Election security experts see allowing small groups, like military, overseas and disabled voters, to use online voting as a largely acceptable risk, given the slim percentage of ballots that are returned via email, fax or web portal. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe. Since internet voting was first considered in the 1990s, cybersecurity experts have warned that hackers could too easily tamper with ballots returned this way. Those concerns remain as strong as ever today, prompting experts to keep a watchful eye on the increasingly easy-to-use, and easy-to-scale-up, technologies that could one day let everyone vote online.

“It’s just a matter of flipping a switch to go from allowing limited use of relatively safe voting to broader use of fully online voting,” said Michael A. Specter, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT who researched the security of a ballot portal created by Democracy Live.

Specter’s concerns frustrate election agencies and, unsurprisingly, the makers of online voting technology. Much of the world’s banking — another highly sensitive activity — is conducted online. Other countries have used online voting to varying degrees. Estonians can vote online, and some overseas voters from Switzerland can too. France tried internet voting too, but abandoned it over security concerns.

Current technology simply can’t protect votes the way it does banking, says Maggie MacAlpine, co-founder of Nordic Innovation Labs. Among the improvements needed: software that prevents hackers from infiltrating voters’ computers and phones, where they could change votes; internet infrastructure that can withstand deliberate attempts to overwhelm online voting systems; stronger encryption to protect ballots from being intercepted on the internet; and fraud prevention tools that can stop votes corrupted by hackers from being counted. 

“The technology to do it has not happened and won’t happen for several decades,” MacAlpine said.

A more seamless online voting experience

Seattle-based Democracy Live is the market leader in US online ballot portal technology, providing a self-reported 85% of all US ballot portals. Competitors include Voting Works and Voatz. Bryan Finney, president of Democracy Live, says he wants to increase access to online voting slowly.

Online voting systems vary because each state regulates its own elections. Some voters must request a PDF version of their ballot by email or fax and then send back an image of a signed, marked ballot on the same systems. Other voters get the ballot from a portal and then return it by fax or email. 

Democracy Live can allow voters to access, mark and return their ballot on one web portal, depending on which version of the service states opt for. Voters request access to the company’s ballot portal, called OmniBallot, from their local election agency. They’ll receive a URL for a web page at which they can enter their voter information and view their ballot.

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Voters who return their ballots online must generally waive their right to a secret ballot. According to state election agencies, voters who get their ballots online have the option of returning them by mail, which maintains the secrecy of the vote. Many voters, however, waive that right and send it online because it’s easier and faster. 

Kim Lindell, elections manager of Umatilla County in Oregon, said online systems are vital for overseas voters because turmoil at the US Postal Service and the COVID-19 pandemic may make mail slower than usual this year.

“Our people overseas are having a hard time getting their ballots,” she said.

Enfranchising disabled voters

Earlier this year, West Virginia extended access to OmniBallot, allowing voters with vision and mobility disabilities to return their ballots online. The state follows Delaware, where sick and disabled voters have had access to OmniBallot portal since 2012, although voters must return their ballots by email, fax or mail.

Howard Sholl, deputy director of the New Castle County office of the Delaware Department of Elections, said his agency is seeing unprecedented interest in internet-enabled voting this year. 

Sholl estimates that less than 10% of the state’s 100,000 absentee voters will get their ballots from a web portal. However, there’s been a tenfold increase in overall requests for absentee voting, so the number of people using the web portal could approach the number of all absentee voters in previous years. (Those voters could still opt to mail in a printout of their ballot.)

All the ways hackers could tamper with ballots

Voting online is very risky. Hackers know dozens of tricks for grabbing your emails, and fax transmissions are no safer. Hacking ballots cast on the Democracy Live system is also possible, according to Specter, the MIT student, and J. Alex Halderman, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan, who co-wrote a paper on Democracy Live’s vulnerabilities. 

In the paper, the pair explained that hackers could install malware on voters’ computers and tamper with their votes. Motivated hackers could also potentially access Democracy Live’s internal systems and troves of identifiable voter data, they said. (The researchers weren’t able to inspect Democracy Live’s internal systems.) 

Hackers could also tamper with votes if they were able to compromise Amazon’s cloud service or Google’s reCaptcha authentication and security service, because Democracy Live relies on those services. There’s also all the internet infrastructure, including web servers all over the world, that the ballots have to traverse before they get to Democracy Live’s systems.

Finney, Democracy Live’s president, says some states require online ballot return, but ballots returned on the web portal represent only “hundreds, maybe thousands” of all US ballots. The number doesn’t include ballots downloaded from the portal and returned by email or fax, but Finney argues that the protection afforded by Amazon and Google give the portal greater security than either of those options. 

A narrow use of internet-enabled voting 

Ben Adida, co-founder of Voting Works, is working on another approach to the problem. His nonprofit’s technology allows voters to download and mark ballots on their computers. Rather than upload the marked ballot to a portal, however, voters need to mail them back. (Election agencies could still allow voters to email or fax a PDF of their ballots.)

Adida acknowledges that cybersecurity experts could pay better attention to the needs of disabled voters. But he believes their ballots shouldn’t be returned electronically.

“That small step is a giant security gap that nobody really knows how to fill,” he says.

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