When news hit this week that West Virginian military members serving abroad will become the first people to vote by phone in a major US election this November, security experts were dismayed. For years, they have warned that all forms of online voting are particularly vulnerable to attacks, and with signs that the midterm elections are already being targeted, they worry this is exactly the wrong time to roll out a new method. Experts who spoke to WIRED doubt that Voatz, the Boston-based startup whose app will run the West Virginia mobile voting, has figured out how to secure online voting when no one else has. At the very least, they are concerned about the lack of transparency. “From what is available publicly about this app, it’s no different from sending voting materials over the internet,” says Marian Schneider, president of the nonpartisan advocacy group Verified Voting. “So that means that all the built-in vulnerability of doing the voting transactions over the internet is present.”
And there are a lot of vulnerabilities when it comes to voting over the internet. The device a person is using could be compromised by malware. Or their browser could be compromised. In many online voting systems, voters receive a link to an online portal in an email from their election officials—a link that could be spoofed to redirect to a different website. There’s also the risk that someone could impersonate the voter. The servers that online voting systems rely on could themselves be targeted by viruses to tamper with votes or by DDoS attacks to bring down the whole system. Crucially, electronic votes don’t create the paper trail that allows officials to audit elections after the fact, or to serve as a backup if there is in fact tampering.
But the thing is, people want to vote by phone. In a 2016 Consumer Reports survey of 3,649 voting-age Americans, 33 percent of respondents said that they would be more likely to vote if they could do it from an internet-connected device like a smartphone. (Whether it would actually increase voter turnout is unclear; a 2014 report conducted by an independent panel on internet voting in British Columbia concludes that, when all factors are considered, online voting doesn’t actually lead more people to vote.)
Thirty-one states and Washington, DC, already allow certain people, mostly service members abroad, to file absentee ballots online, according to Verified Voting. But in 28 of those states—including Alaska, where any registered voter can vote online—online voters must waive their right to a secret ballot, underscoring another major risk that security experts worry about with online voting: that it can’t protect voter privacy.