Since the dawn of the internet, someone has inevitably raised this question every election cycle: Why can’t we vote online? (The question was particularly apt in 2020, when states had to grapple with how to run an election during a pandemic.) And every time, election security experts dutifully answer that there is currently no technological way to guarantee a secure online ballot.
Despite that, some Americans are able to vote online — namely, military and overseas voters — and they have been for more than a decade. Now a handful of states have started expanding this access to include voters with disabilities. Colorado passed a law in May allowing voters with certain disabilities to return ballots online, Nevada passed a similar law in June and other states like West Virginia are piloting the option. Last month in North Carolina, a federal judge ordered the state to permanently expand access to online ballot return to voters with vision disabilities — access that was temporarily granted for the November 2020 election, after a coalition of groups including the North Carolina Council of the Blind filed a lawsuit against the state board of elections.
These new laws have reinvigorated a longstanding debate over whether there should be exceptions to the no-online-voting stance. That debate gets at one of the core tensions in election infrastructure: Voting access and voting security are both essential for democracy, but prioritizing one often comes at the expense of the other.
“There is a conflict typically between accessibility and security,” said the University of Florida’s Juan Gilbert, who chairs the computer, information science and engineering department there and studies accessible voting systems. “If you think about it, the most secure thing in the world, whatever it is, is going to be the most inaccessible thing, just by definition.”
Since 1986, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act has required U.S. states and territories to allow military and overseas voters to cast absentee ballots. In the 2000s, UOCAVA was updated to include a provision so voters could receive their ballots electronically (to be returned by mail). Though there was never any federal mandate to do so, over the years some states began expanding their rules to also allow this group of voters to return their ballots online, by email or through web portals.
But just because the infrastructure is there doesn’t mean it’s ready for mass use. Voting security experts have consistently argued the technology is not yet advanced enough to allow for a private, secure online voting system. The question is whether even a small allowance for voters serving in the military, residing overseas or living with a disability makes our elections too vulnerable.
The benefits are clear. Michelle Bishop, the voter access and engagement manager for the National Disability Rights Network, said having the option to return ballots electronically could break down some of the myriad barriers that voters with disabilities face. “There are existing challenges in every step of the process,” she said, “from the time you get registered to the time you cast your ballot.”
For Christopher Bell, the president of the North Carolina Council of the Blind who helped lead last year’s lawsuit against the state’s board of elections, the pandemic highlighted the need for this access. He typically votes in person but like millions of other Americans was less keen on that option during the pandemic. Yet the only alternative — absentee voting by mail — didn’t work for Bell, a blind voter.
“A paper ballot means you have to get a sighted person to sit down and help you record your vote. A sighted person can vote absentee privately and independently, but a blind person could not,” Bell said.
After the online return was made available to voters with sight disabilities, Bell was able to vote from home. He received his ballot through an online portal, completed it on his own computer using text-to-voice software and returned the ballot electronically through the same portal. Then, an election worker at the local precinct office printed a paper version of the ballot to be counted.
It’s not just voters with sight disabilities who may need to cast their ballots online. Voters with physical disabilities that prevent them from holding or manipulating a paper ballot can’t vote absentee privately either if the only option is by mail.
Advocates of electronic ballot return also say that not all voters with a disability will choose to use this method — many are able to or prefer to vote in person or by mail — but having that option is key for voters who would otherwise be disenfranchised. Because so few voters will use this method, making it a less tempting target, advocates argue the risk of an outside attack is lower (though some security experts disagree). Likewise, the risk of overturning a result is lower too. Bishop called it a “limited, calculated risk.” Critics, however, are concerned not only about the inherent risks of voting online but also about the specific risks of the technology typically used.
Democracy Live, a Seattle-based voting-technology company, developed a cloud-based portal that many states currently use to receive absentee ballots from overseas and military voters, and that is now being extended to voters with disabilities. But cybersecurity experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Michigan said its platform, OmniBallot, has critical flaws that make it vulnerable to attacks and risk voters’ privacy. Bryan Finney, the founder and president of Democracy Live, told FiveThirtyEight that no voting system is 100 percent secure but that the company is constantly working to improve OmniBallot. He noted that OmniBallot uses the Amazon cloud platform, which is also used by the Department of Homeland Security and the CIA.
Some experts believe, however, that there are options that don’t require compromising security or access. Gilbert, from the University of Florida, has spent his career investigating ways to bridge the gap between these two necessities and has developed technological solutions he says could provide alternatives to online voting. One principle of his technology is universality: having all voters, regardless of ability, cast ballots using the same technology, which would allow security and accessibility to work in tandem. Take, for example, his concept called televoting. All absentee voters would send their ballots electronically and watch via livestream as they are printed at a local voting precinct. A machine would both show and read aloud what’s marked on the ballot for the voter’s verification before it is submitted, according to Gilbert. If the machine was hacked to say you voted for candidate A when the ballot says you voted for candidate B, for instance, all the sighted voters would notice it.
“The machine wouldn’t know if I’m blind or sighted, it would just read it back. If it reads something different and I’m sighted, we know there’s a problem,” Gilbert said. “That’s why universal design works. If people with varying abilities all use the same thing, it’s hard to target them.”
But, so far, Gilbert’s ideas haven’t gained much traction, whereas the much simpler — but also riskier — option of online voting is spreading.
Ultimately, trying to balance security, privacy and access is a tricky puzzle to solve, and technology hasn’t quite nailed it yet. Make our voting systems super-secure and we risk disenfranchising voters. Make them ultra-accessible and we risk undermining our elections. Bell, from the North Carolina Council of the Blind, is keenly aware of the security risks at play but said preventing voters with disabilities from having these tools doesn’t solve the problem alone.
“We need to fix the issue,” he said. “But don’t try to fix it on the backs of people with disabilities.”
CORRECTION (July 7, 2021, 10:38 a.m.): A previous version of this article stated that the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act mandated the electronic return of ballots from overseas and military voters. While some states allow electronic return, the federal act requires only the option to electronically transmit blank ballots to voters.