In an age where people can transfer money using their mobile device, it’s not hard to envision a future where citizens wake up on Election Day, pull out their phones and choose the next leader of the Free World on the way to work. Last week, a federal election agency took a small step toward that futuristic vision. … The updated guidelines will allow manufacturers to test machines against modern security and disability standards and get them certified for use by states ahead of the 2016 presidential election. … When it comes to Internet-based voting systems, many experts argue there’s no clear solution to address the issues of security and verifiability. A securely designed online system also needs to be easy to use, and so far that goal has eluded researchers, said Poorvi Vora, an associate professor of computer science at George Washington University who has researched Internet voting systems. Vora is part of a group of academics, computer scientists, election officials and activists working on a project led by the Overseas Vote Foundation, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit, to answer one question: Is it possible to design a system that lets people vote remotely in a secure, accessible, anonymous, convenient and verifiable manner? The answer so far is no, but the group says it is close to a possible solution and will present its design to the election research community and federal agencies this summer. As with health records or financial data, online security remains an obstacle.
It is critical to make sure that votes have not been altered while in transit, said Joseph Kiniry, lead technical project manager for the foundation’s effort and a principal investigator at Galois, a Portland, Ore., computer science company involved in the project. Kiniry, a self-described election activist, has hacked into Internet-based voting systems to show government officials their flaws.
Soon after the 2014 midterm election, Kiniry and a fellow researcher published a paper that demonstrated how to hack into the PDF-based Internet voting system used by the state of Alaska. Voters there can choose to download and fill out a PDF ballot form and e-mail it back to the election official. This method has also been used in emergency situations such as after Hurricane Sandy in New York.
In a test, though, the researchers hacked into a home wireless router and changed a voter’s selection before the voter’s e-mail reached the official, leaving virtually no trace of their attack. The hack showed the vulnerability of current systems, but whether it would work on a scale large enough to influence an election is up for debate. Ultimately, election officials and researchers agree that online voting is still a worthy goal, but there are many other ways technology can be used to enhance a fundamental democratic right.