In our very futuristic society, you can do pretty much anything online. You can order food. You can buy eyeglasses. You can do your banking. You can pay your bills. You can invest in the stock market. You can catch up on current events. You can play video games. You can look at really weird porn. You can look at really weird anything, actually. You cannot, however, vote.
This is a frustrating fact for democracy advocates. As America hunkers down for yet another presidential election, it’s becoming increasingly clear that millions of citizens are going run into some serious problems at the polls. Conditions at voting stations in Florida are already being compared to a third world country, as early voters waited in line for up to nine hours to cast their ballot — only to be given absentee ballots and told to come back later. In Ohio, the state that will likely decide it all, legal wrangling over the state’s early voting procedures continued up until Friday, when a judge finally decided that polls would be open for in-person voting over the weekend. They had lines there, too.
Those are just two examples, but they’re hyper relevant ones. Those hundreds, if not thousands, Floridians and Ohioans who don’t have the free time to spend their entire day at the polls, and inevitably stay home instead doing their democratic duty, could sway the entire election. Why not let them email their ballots in? Or better yet, what about setting up a secure website like the one that the Internal Revenue Service uses to process tax returns where people could go and cast their ballot? Or how about this million dollar idea: an iPhone app for all of your US Election needs? (The Android version will be available shortly.) You could be sitting at Chipotle having a nice little lunch break on Tuesday and decide its time to pick a president. Three taps later, and you’re done. That’s how a proper 21st-century democracy ought to work!
Cyber security experts disagree, vehemently. “Internet voting sounds like it would be so convenient and such a modern application of technology, but when we get down into the details about what it would take for Internet voting to do well, it turns out to be an incredibly difficult security problem,” J. Alex Halderman, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, told Live Science. Halderman added that the most secure networks in the world fall victim to hacker attacks all the time. And what better target for a catastrophic data breach than an election? “So protecting against that kind of threat if you’re doing Internet voting is going be very hard, especially if Google and the Pentagon can’t get this right,” Halderman said.
Nevertheless, the government is starting to experiment with different online voting techniques. The largest effort is aimed at civilians and members of the US. military living abroad, about a quarter of a million of whom do not have access to voting stations. Normally they vote with paper absentee ballots, but this year, soldiers and ex-pats in 27 states and the District of Columbia will be able to email in their ballots. There are plenty of people who are concerned that a batch of these ballots might get intercepted and tampered with. Email is not encrypted, and the PDF files that serve as ballots could be adjusted by hackers if intercepted. Proponents of the system argue, however, that sending in an absentee ballot via email is just as risky as sending it through snail mail services.
Taking voting completely online is a more ambitious undertaking, and one that the government doesn’t seem super interested in pursuing. In the early 2000s, the US military started to test an online voting portal for servicemen and women abroad called the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment, but the Pentagon scrapped it following concerns about its security. Canada seems less concerned, and in fact, about 80 Canadian municipalities have been using online voting systems for local elections for years. One report showed that overall voter turnout increased by 10 percent after the implementation of the new online voting option.
Once again, though, the government’s fear of hackers is more powerful than the promise of higher voter turnout. And considering what Halderman was saying about the Pentagon not being able to protect itself against hackers, the trepidation sort of makes sense. The security required to run a clean election, after all, is a few notches higher than what it takes to get your Seamless web order to the local pizza place. “I consider voting security to be a national-security issue,” David Jefferson, chairman of Verified Voting, told Live Science. “So it has to be treated with that level of seriousness.”