Bradley Tusk is best known as the former political operative who invented lobbying for the sharing economy. He’s the guy who claims credit for turning hordes of Uber customers into city-hall picketers whenever the ride-hailing company objected to new taxi regulations in New York, Washington, or a half-dozen other cities. When states tried to crack down on fantasy sports websites that offer daily cash prizes, one of the biggest, Fanduel, hired Tusk to mobilize its user base to hit back at attorneys general. When a local government suggests that the the people who pick up home-improvement jobs through Handy should be classified as employees entitled to benefits, the app calls in Tusk to argue that those workers are independent contractors. … But Tusk’s financial backing and the Warner family’s enthusiasm shouldn’t be taken as proof that elections can be conducted securely over the internet, says Duncan Buell, a computer science professor at the University of South Carolina who focuses on voting systems and election integrity. “I am strongly opposed to electronic voting, and I think the whole notion of internet voting is completely nuts,” Buell says. “There are a number of issues that come up. The first is authentication. How do you verify who’s at the other end?”
Tusk says Voatz will verify participants through the fingerprint-scanning or facial-recognition technology on its users’ smartphones, though Buell says both those protocols can be hacked. Such instances are rare, but not impossible. But even if the personal authentication on the voter’s end can be perfected, Buell says there are other potential security holes after a vote has been cast.
“The other problem we have is that at least as far as I can see from the Voatz website, this is yet again an instance of faith-based voting,” he says. “We have no more reason to think Voatz got its software right as we do these [paperless ballots], because we can’t see the code. There’s an old adage in computer-science class: To err is human, but to really screw things up it takes a computer.”
Electronic voting, and especially online voting, comes with a host of other problems. For starters, Buell says, it transfers authority from government elections officials to software firms with proprietary code. A vote without a paper trail also makes it difficult to challenge potentially corrupted ballots, or for voters accused of corruption to defend themselves. And a successful hack could potentially influence thousands of ballots in an instant, Buell warns.