When all 17 agencies in the federal government’s worldwide intelligence network agree that Russian cyber-spies penetrated voter registration and record-keeping systems in at least four states last year, you’d think that state legislators would shy away from embracing new, expensive, and vulnerable-to-hacking election technologies. And when the Department of Defense — which, despite billions of dollars invested in protecting its own computers — has fallen victim to hackers and concluded it can’t guarantee the integrity of ballots cast online by troops stationed overseas, you’d think online voting would be totally off-the-table. But in Virginia, you’d be wrong. State senators ignored warnings from a non-partisan group of computer scientists and voted 36-4 last week for an internet voting “pilot program” pushed by Sen. William DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach. SB 1490 may be the worst bill you’ve never heard of in the 2017 legislative session and it’s now halfway to passage.
To his credit, DeSteph is trying to address a real problem. Voting isn’t simple for troops overseas, particularly in combat zones. Registration forms and ballots must be requested and sent out weeks or months in advance by each service member’s home state. Then the ballots must be returned — properly sealed — by Election Day. And because the troops are risking their lives to protect our right to self-government, it seems like the least we can do is make sure they can exercise their right.
But though it would allow online voting only by troops serving overseas, SB 1490 could jeopardize the votes of every Virginian. Election law experts who’ve studied online voting systems for conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and liberal ones like the Brennan Center for Justice agree that when states accept votes over the internet, they open their entire voting systems to attack. And today’s attackers are so sophisticated, the damage done in altered ballots or manipulated vote counts might never be detected.