The coronavirus pandemic has upended our way of life. As millions of Americans practice social distancing, restaurant and grocery deliveries have soared. Children are attending school online via conferencing apps. Adults are enjoying virtual happy hours with friends. And a record number of corporate employees are working remotely. Given all these adaptations to daily life because of the pandemic, some asked about the recent election: Why can’t online voting take the place of in-person voting?
It makes sense to ask this question because so much of our lives has shifted online and voting at the polls traditionally involves gatherings of people—something many have understandably been trying to avoid. There are exceptions. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia offer voting via fax, email or an online portal for military members or American citizens living abroad, according to a CBNC article.
It also makes sense to explore online voting as a possibility. It’s a huge success in Estonia, where online voting saves the country an estimated 11,000 working days each election year, according to the 2019 Time magazine article, which called Estonia “the world leader in electronic voting.”
Launched in 2005, online voting is now embraced by 46.7% of Estonia’s population, according to a Government Technology article. In 2007, after moving a statue dedicated to a Soviet soldier, Estonia successfully fended off a cyberthreat believed to have been initiated by Russia.
“Despite those strained relations, Estonian elections have consistently been determined free and fair by observers, with no major allegations of interference,” wrote Time reporter Billy Perrigo.
With the U.S. presidential election now (mostly) in the rearview mirrow, let’s explore three major reasons why online voting wasn’t possible for Americans in 2020—and why it likely won’t happen for at least a decade.
Reason 1: The Threat From Hackers
After the U.S. intelligence community discovered Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a report advising that federal elections should be handled via paper ballots that people can read. Based on a two-year study, the “Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy” report was prepared by a committee of computer science and cybersecurity experts, legal and election scholars, social scientists and election officials.
“Internet voting should not be used at the present time, and it should not be used in the future until and unless very robust guarantees of secrecy, security, and verifiability are developed and in place,” according to a September 2018 press release announcing the report findings. “Currently, no known technology can guarantee the secrecy, security, and verifiability of a marked ballot transmitted over the Internet.”
The cybersecurity community considers online voting systems “an open problem” because it hasn’t been able to figure out a way to secure it from hackers, said Dan Wallach, a computer science professor at Rice University, in the CBNC article. Past audits of U.S. online elections, including by MIT, have found security weaknesses that could offer a way in for hackers, both domestic and from foreign governments.
Another concern is that the standard way to verify the results of an election in which irregularities are suspected is to recount the ballots. Online voting complicates this because if a suspected hacker has altered ballots, recounting online ballots can’t remedy that and will just render the same count.
Reason 2: The Danger of Broad, Long-Term Impacts
Two major things make elections unique from a bank fraud scenario, according to a Politico article: namely, that elections are anonymous and irreversible. If cybercriminals hack online banking transactions, it poses a problem only for the parties involved. Plus, the problem is fairly easy to resolve, usually involving the bank freezing your account and sending you a new card. If cybercriminals hack online ballots, the ramifications are much more serious and much tougher to resolve.
Uncertainty over the results of an election—especially one as critical as a presidential election—can throw an entire country into disarray and raise serious concerns on the world stage. Consider what happened in Belarus with its election, which was done Aug. 8 by paper ballot. The country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko—who has been called “Europe’s last dictator” because of the way he’s restricted freedoms of information, press, association and assembly—was immediately declared the winner with allegedly 80% of the vote and the election was accused of multiple instances of electoral fraud. Suspicious about the validity of the election, protestors took to the streets to demand a new election and have been protesting ever since. A number of countries, including Germany, Poland and Sweden, have called out the country’s election and the European Union imposed sanctions on Belarus officials for “violence, repression and election fraud.”
Unless properly secure, online voting could put the U.S. at risk of losing the confidence of allies and signaling weakness to rivals.
Reason 3: The Risk of Low Voter Confidence
It’s critically important in a democracy that people are confident of election results. A vulnerable online voting system could undermine that. Currently, there are too many questions and concerns for online voting to pass the voter confidence test.
“One of the biggest reasons I believe that elections in many countries (not just the United States) have not moved online is that many people do not fully trust that their vote will be counted properly,” said Brian Honan, CEO of BH Consulting and former Europol Special Advisor on Cybersecurity. “There are fears the online election systems could be hacked to rig an election in favor of a particular candidate, that votes could be lost, miscounted or brought offline during an election, resulting in people not being able to vote.”
Online Voting Will Happen Someday (But We’re Not Ready Yet)
The threat from hackers, the long-term ramifications of a cybersecurity breach to our country and the lost trust of voters are all powerful reasons why online voting isn’t a reality for the vast majority of voters. However, Honan and other cybersecurity experts predict online elections will happen someday. In fact, he predicts online elections will happen within the next 10 years.
“I firmly believe that the elections will move online,” he said. “The pandemic is a good example of how individuals, companies, societies, countries and indeed the world have used technology to overcome the challenges the pandemic raised.”
Whether elections are via paper ballot or online, one thing doesn’t change: Voting is your right as an American citizen and an important opportunity to let your voice be heard.