In theory, using the internet or e-mail to vote for the U.S. president sounds like a good idea. It would be easier than rushing to the nearest polling station before or after work, and it might pull in notoriously apathetic younger voters already living most of their lives via screens. But in reality these online channels have proved to be terribly insecure, plagued by cyber attacks and malicious software able to penetrate supposedly well-protected financial, medical and even military systems. Such security concerns are the most frequent and convincing arguments against online voting—there is no way to fully secure e-voting systems from cyber attack. Online voting systems are also expensive and often require voters to waive their right to a secret ballot. Still, at least 31 states and the District of Columbia do let military and expatriate voters use the internet to submit marked ballots via e-mailed attachments, fax software or a Web portal according to Verified Voting, a nonprofit organization that studies the security of electronic voting systems. Twenty-one of those states and D.C. let voters e-mail or fax in their ballots, and another five states allow some people to cast their votes via special Web sites. “You can make voting more secret with a Web site because there is no e-mail address to trace a vote back to but the information about a person’s vote and their voter ID number are still out there on a server,” says Jeremy Epstein, a senior computer scientist at nonprofit research organization SRI International.
In 2012 Alaska became the first state to allow internet voting for all residents—roughly 740,000 people spread over about 1.7 million square kilometers. “The motivation to offer internet voting is a good one to make it easier for geographically disbursed people,” Epstein says. But just like military personnel overseas, Alaska online voters also give up their right to a secret ballot. “When returning the ballot through the secure online delivery system, your are voluntarily waiving your right to a secret ballot and are assuming the risk that a faulty transmission may occur,” reads a notice on the state’s Division of Elections Web site. Military personnel often vote online out of necessity, Epstein adds: “They either don’t understand that they’re giving up secrecy to vote online or they would rather compromise that secrecy than not vote at all.”
There are also serious concerns about cyber attackers influencing elections. More use of internet voting would make fear of “rigging” even more of an issue than it has already become during the current election, Epstein says. If an election’s results are extremely unexpected or need to be audited, checking actual ballots is a lot more reliable than checking computer systems for signs of tampering. “Rigging an election electronically would be a lot more likely than someone going from precinct to precinct to tamper with votes,” Epstein says. “We do not know how to build foolproof [online] systems.”