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Why A Voting App Won’t Solve Our Problems This November

At 106, MacCene Grimmett is one of the oldest voters in the state of Utah. Though women didn’t have the right to vote when she was born in 1913, by the time she was of voting age, the 19th Amendment had passed. She has voted in every election since, she told her local Fox affiliate, including the Utah County municipal general election last November.

But that time, the centenarian cast her ballot in a novel way: She voted via an app.

America is 174 days away from a presidential election. It’s also in the middle of a pandemic that upended normal life, requiring mass shutdowns and social distancing. Those two things don’t exactly jibe.

Having millions of Americans stand in crowded polling places for hours to cast a ballot on Election Day sounds like the makings of a public health disaster — especially if there is a second surge of COVID-19 infections in the fall, as some experts predict. So now, election officials are looking for ways to hold elections remotely. One option that has been proposed is voting via an app on a smartphone or electronic device, just like Grimmett did last fall (though so far, states seem to only be considering this option for certain groups of voters, such as voters with disabilities).

It seems like an obvious solution: With so much of our daily lives now virtual, why couldn’t our elections be moved online too?


Why switching to vote-by-mail is tougher than it seems | FiveThirtyEight

Voting online or via an app has even been tested in small elections a handful of times, but election security experts and even the founder of one of the most prominent voting apps on the market, Voatz, say there’s a laundry list of reasons why this technology isn’t ready for prime time. (Not to mention the fact that 19 percent of Americans still don’t have a smartphone, and as many as 21.3 million Americans still lack access to broadband internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission.)1

“I don’t know what I can say to explain this better: This is an incredibly dangerous idea,” said Mike Specter, a computer science Ph.D. student at MIT who has researched voting technology.

Specter told me there are a number of security and privacy concerns with voting online, which includes voting via an app, and that no technology so far has been able to solve these issues.

For starters, there is currently no way to ensure that each individual voter’s device is secure. Malware covertly installed on a voter’s phone could potentially alter the voter’s ballot or prevent it from being properly transmitted, Specter said. And even if the device is clean, election security experts say there are too many steps required to ensure that the ballot a voter submits online is the one actually counted. With a paper ballot, a voter marks their vote by hand and can visually verify it’s correct. A hard copy is also retained, which can then be audited. But with a digital vote, there are many steps that can create a gap between the vote cast and the vote counted.

“If you think about it, we have several versions of what that vote is and there is no way to verify that all those versions are the same,” said Duncan Buell, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of South Carolina. “We have one version, which is what the voter sees in the form. We have another version, which is what gets transmitted by the software. We have a third version, which is the version that gets received by the storage system and then we have another version, which is what gets printed out and tallied by the election officials.”

And if the vote is intercepted at any point in that chain, there is no way to verify that a change had been made. It’d be like passing your paper ballot down a chain of strangers and trusting that nobody adjusted it before the vote was counted.


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For the Utah County municipal election in which Grimmett voted by app, military and overseas voters and voters with disabilities could vote remotely using Voatz. But a report earlier this year by Specter and his colleagues at MIT found multiple security vulnerabilities in the chain of information that a hacker could exploit, including learning how a user voted, changing the user’s ballot or even accessing the user’s private information.

Voatz claimed the researchers’ methodology was flawed, but every online voting platform has faced similar challenges, according to Maggie MacAlpine, co-founder of Nordic Innovation Labs, a security consultancy firm that specializes in safeguarding elections. MacAlpine said when election officials have run trials of other online voting software in the past, they invited white hat hackers (computer security experts who attempt to hack into a system the purpose of assessing vulnerabilities) to test the software live.

“They have always gotten in with laughable ease,” MacAlpine said. “Every single time.”

It’s a longstanding problem, too. In 2010, for example, Washington, D.C., was considering a new online voting platform and invited researchers from the University of Michigan to test it. But when the Michigan fight song began playing after every ballot was successfully cast, it was clear the system wasn’t as secure as officials had hoped. And as the MIT analysis of Voatz shows, things haven’t gotten much better in the last decade.

MacAlpine noted that even if there was a completely secure system, there’s currently no way to have an online vote that is both anonymous and auditable. An anonymous vote protects against voter coercion, suppression, or vote selling. An auditable vote protects against any errors or breaches, because officials can conduct a recount. But that combination, which is possible with a paper ballot, isn’t yet possible online.

Voatz, though not the only online voting vendor in the market, has attracted a lot of scrutiny because it has been used by multiple state and local elections to facilitate absentee voting. The company’s co-founder and CEO, Nimit Sawhney, takes issue with a lot of the criticism the company has received, saying there are multiple layers to security and accuracy that protect against the issues raised. But even Sawhney said that at this point, the company couldn’t handle this fall’s presidential election.

“Nationwide would be a huge stretch,” Sawhney said. “We are a tiny little startup. There are about 25 people on our team. For us to be able to claim that we can do elections for 200 million people on a smartphone? That would be naive.”

So what’s a country to do when a pandemic is forcing us apart, but an online election is still a science fiction dream? Each of the experts I spoke to said the same thing: vote by mail.

Planning needs to start now, to make sure ballots are printed off and mailed in time, and that voters know their options for casting a ballot. In-person voting will still most likely take place as well. But experts told me if we want those well-spaced lines for the ballot boxes to be less than a few miles long, we’ll have to vastly ramp up mail-in voting by November.

“We’re going to have a hard time doing it this year,” Buell said. “But we have almost no choice.”

Footnotes

  1. As of 2017, the most recent numbers the FCC makes available. The agency’s standard definition for broadband is 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload.

Kaleigh Rogers is a FiveThirtyEight reporter covering science, politics and technology.

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