The Risky Business of Internet Voting

The debate over Internet voting focuses on members of the military and Americans living overseas who have had difficulty getting and returning ballots by Election Day. In 2008, only two-thirds of them returned their ballots on time, compared with 91% of absentee voters.

The debate over Internet voting focuses on members of the military and Americans living overseas who have had difficulty getting and returning ballots by Election Day. In 2008, only two-thirds of them returned their ballots on time, compared with 91% of absentee voters.

Ask the typical American how to make voting in our elections easier and the consensus number one answer is “Internet voting.” Why not, right? We trust the Internet with our personal correspondence, family pictures, and even our banking access. Voting online seems like the next natural step. Unfortunately, given current technology, it would be a misstep to trust our democratic process to the Internet.

Proponents of Internet voting suggest that the risks may outweigh the expected benefits, such as increased participation overall, and especially by military and overseas voters. Opponents question that feasibility of verifying votes cast electronically over the Internet.

Recently, a pilot test of Internet voting in the District of Columbia was shut down after 36 hours when a team of computer hackers from the University of Michigan successfully broke into the system. They found personal voter information—including names, PINs, and passwords—and were able to change all the votes that had been cast. The hackers wrote a program to change all future votes in the system as well. And they tied it all up by installing the University of Michigan football fight song to play on the voting site. Officials in DC overseeing the pilot learned about the hack after receiving complaints; their system of intruder detection and alarm function had not notified them of the compromised system.

Despite this proof that Internet voting is not secure, a story in USA Today notes that two states—Arizona and West Virginia–will allow military and overseas voters to use the Internet to vote on November 2. More than 20 other states let those voters use e-mail, which some election security experts say is just as vulnerable.

Learn more:

Hacking the D.C. Internet Voting Pilot (Freedom to Tinker blog, October 2010) It may someday be possible to build a secure method for submitting ballots over the Internet, but in the meantime, such systems should be presumed to be vulnerable based on the limitations of today’s security technology.

Internet Voting Still in Beta (New York Times editorial, January 2010) Internet voting is in its infancy, and still far too unreliable, but states are starting to allow it and the trend is accelerating because of a new federal law that requires greater efforts to help military and other overseas voters cast ballots. Men and women in uniform must have a fair opportunity to vote, but allowing online voting in its current state could open elections up to vote theft and other mischief.

No Time to Vote (Pew Center on the States, January 2009) Only one-third of the estimated one million ballots distributed to military and overseas voters in 2006 were actually cast or counted, according to the federal Election Assistance Commission.

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