A few countries, like Estonia, have gone for internet-based voting in national elections in a big way, and many others (like Ireland and Canada) have experimented with it. For Americans, with a presidential election approaching later this year, it’s a timely issue: already, some states have come to allow at least certain forms of voting by internet. Proponents say online elections have compelling upsides, chief among them ease of participation. People who might not otherwise vote — in particular military personnel stationed abroad, but many others besides — are more and more reached by internet access. Online voting offers a way to keep the electoral process open to them. With online voting, too, there’s no worry about conventional absentee ballots being lost or delayed in the postal system, either before reaching the voter or on the way back to be counted. The downsides, though, are daunting. According to RSA panelists David Jefferson and J. Alex Halderman, in fact, they’re overwhelming. Speaking Thursday afternoon, the two laid out their case against e-voting.
Jefferson and Halderman have impressive credentials as analysts and critics of internet voting. Jefferson, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is chairman of the board of the Verified Voting Foundation, an NGO focused on promoting election integrity, and coauthor of a report that spurred the Department of Defense to withdraw for further consideration its then-plan for online voting, called SERVE, in 2004. Halderman takes a different, hands-on approach, demonstrating (along with his grad students at the University of Michigan) just how polling-station election machines and online voting system can be compromised. “I’ve probably hacked into and otherwise found vulnerabilities in more polling places than anyone else,” he says.
Jefferson and Halderman are careful to define the key element of elections they’re trying to expose as unfixably broken: namely, the delivery of completed ballots over the internet, whether that means a web app, email or some other conduit, without a voter-verified paper audit trail. Some kinds of election technology can move from the voting booth to the online world with less risk to the integrity of the election itself — for instance, distribution of blank ballots, or even online voter registration. “This isn’t about keeping score of primaries, or gathering information about candidates, but actually voting,” said Jefferson. The risk of hacked elections isn’t just the possibility of political rivals trying to out-do each other, he said; ultimately, vulnerable election systems compromise national security and ballot secrecy. Even a few hundred votes may suffice to swing a House or Senate race, and that can have cascading consequences for control of elected bodies themselves. “Wherever there’s a concentration of votes sufficient to swing a major election, there’s a national security concern.”