Jalisa Giles leads the “Secure Our Vote” campaign at Public Citizen.
The internet has revolutionized the way we live, work, and communicate. It has also sparked discussions about ways to leverage its power to make one of the most highly-prized rights guaranteed by our democracy — voting — more accessible.
When voting is made accessible, Americans’ participation in the civic process increases. While internet voting, also known as electronic ballot return, may seem like a convenient solution to ongoing accessibility issues, it raises significant reliability, security and privacy concerns that must be addressed before it can be safely implemented in any jurisdiction.
In the US, reputable federal entities that oversee cybersecurity and elections — including the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Election Assistance Commission (EAC), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — have made clear that internet voting cannot be conducted securely at this time, citing the risk of potential hacking, manipulation, and data breaches
The Dangers of Internet Voting
1. Security Vulnerabilities
Internet voting systems are susceptible to hacking and cyberattacks. Malicious actors could cut off the ability to vote online, manipulate results, compromise the integrity of an election, or steal sensitive voter information from thousands of voters — potentially without detection. A recent example occurred in Ecuador, where cyber attacks that appeared to be routed through multiple countries disrupted the online voting system, preventing many registered voters abroad from casting their vote.
Despite advancements in cybersecurity, no system is entirely immune to threats, and government elections are particularly tempting targets for would-be disruptors. Online banking and shopping are susceptible to hacks and data leaks which are often well publicized. When breaches and fraud happen, financial institutions typically absorb the cost and repay the consumer, and have insurance to help cover the cost. Unlike online banking, voting requires a more complex process, to ensure votes are kept private and secure while accurately verifying voters’ identities. With voting, breaches mean that hackers can access crucial information that would have otherwise been kept private. If there’s any issue, it is not as simple as reimbursing people. If there is a significant hack or error, to be certain of the outcome, the election must be re-run.
2. Reliability Concerns
In a system failure similar to Ecuador’s, a limited scope local Australian internet voting system went down on Election Day of this year, leaving approximately 30,000 voters unable to cast their ballots. Australian officials re-ran some elections and then ended their use of internet voting. In 2020, the Iowa Democratic Party commissioned an internet voting app to tabulate and report results. In this instance, there were also delays and inconsistencies in reporting results causing a debacle in the media. Such technical failures can disenfranchise thousands of voters and undermine the democratic process.
3. Privacy Risks
Online voting systems often prioritize identity verification at the expense of voter privacy. Voters submitting ballots via many states’ systems are trading the secret ballot for the convenience of voting online. This exposes an entire group of voters to potential coercion, intimidation, or even voter suppression, as the number of votes cast online increases. Internet voting makes it much easier for outside actors to determine how many individuals voted at once. Ballots transmitted and stored online could be breached, potentially revealing an entire group of voters’ choices. The more votes cast online, the greater the incentives are for potential attackers.
4. Authentication Challenges
Achieving both secure identity verification and maintaining the secrecy of votes is a critical challenge that demands a combination of robust technical solutions, regulatory compliance, and building voter trust in the process. As of right now, there is no reliable way to authenticate voters while also keeping their ballot private.
Innovative and safe voting options could help all voters access their right to vote whether they have a permanent or short term disability and no matter where they live.
Instead of pursuing internet voting, we recommend for all jurisdictions:
- Provide curbside voting alternatives.
- Implement and publicize ballot delivery and assistance services that would allow voters who have a disability, language access need or other encumbrance, to cast their ballots with the help of trusted individuals during the early voting period.
- Maintain clear signage directing people where to vote, how to access all in-person voting options.
- Assemble proactive and well-trained poll workers who are familiar with accessible voting equipment for both people with disabilities and with language access needs.
- Allow all voters to vote by mail and provide domestic postage paid which can make mail-in ballots more user friendly and reduce the cost of returning ballots.
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While the idea of internet voting is alluring, it comes with substantial reliability, security, and privacy concerns that need to be addressed. Significant research has not resulted in sufficient solutions to date; much more research is still required to develop even limited use verifiable systems. To ensure the inclusion of overseas voters and voters with disabilities, alternative methods like electronic ballot delivery to the voter, mail-in ballots, truly accessible polling stations, ballot delivery assistance, and accessible voting machines are the most viable and secure options.
It is imperative that we prioritize the integrity of each vote while simultaneously making the opportunity accessible to all citizens, regardless of their location or abilities. In doing so, we can safeguard the cornerstone of democracy and ensure that the democratic process remains secure, reliable, and private for all citizens.
Jalisa Giles, a Mississippi native, with a wealth of experience in civic engagement and community empowerment. She previously served as the Community and Civic Engagement Director at Florida Conservation Voters, where she oversaw the registration of 13,000 voters across Miami, Broward, and Palm Beach. Currently leading the “Secure Our Vote” campaign at Public Citizen, Jalisa is at the forefront of efforts to protect election laws and funding to strengthen our democracy.