Why Smartphones Aren't Smart Enough To Vote Online Yet

The Internet is a glorious place where we can do just about anything. We willingly offer up private information to our banks because they promise the data will be kept safe. We trust that our browser history in incognito mode won’t be looked at. We logically know that anything on the Internet is at risk of being seen, but we also believe that if we take extra steps to implement complicated passwords, then our information is generally safe and we can trust where it goes. So, why can’t we vote online?

It seems like it would be an obvious way to increase turnout. While access to the Internet is certainly still a privilege, allowing someone to vote from the confines and comfort of their own home is a logical method to motivate them to cast their ballot. After all, 77% of America’s citizens own a smartphone - let alone how many have access to the Internet. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like it would relatively simple to accomplish. Everyone says that the Internet isn’t really private, but there surely has to be an approach we could take to guarantee our information remains secret. Besides, we have the Dark Web, a notoriously private place that the police can’t even crack. Can’t we apply some of that technology to voting?

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Not so fast. Technology and politics are two entirely different worlds. Voting begs for a substantial level of privacy and security. Technology is not quite up to snuff yet to meet these standards. 

What Would It Entail?

Even our “high-security” online transactions, like banking, would be low-security compared to what we would need for voting. Computer security experts almost unanimously agree that our computers are nowhere near as secure as they would need to be to pull this off. Today, it is far too easy to hack computers. Private information is often compromised. Not only this, but the average user all too often can’t identify what a real threat online is. Sometimes, malware is easy to spot, like when there are flashing popups or the site asks for your social security number out of context. But more advanced malware is sneaky, and it can even be difficult for cyber-security experts to pinpoint where a virus has taken hold. Until the average Internet user is more reliably consistent at identifying and preventing viruses, voting will not be secure enough.

What About The Dark Web?

The Dark Web uses notorious encryption methods, making it nearly impossible to track where a person is based on their Internet activity. With voting, we would need a secure enough system so that we couldn’t extract data about a person from their vote. The problem is that the government also needs to be able to verify who a person is from their vote - to ensure that a vote is genuine and that one person doesn’t vote multiple times. Already, this presents a problem. Extra encryption methods will make it nearly impossible for the government to authenticate an individual’s vote. And yet, without this encryption, a vote will be too easily hackable.

Real World Experiments

More than one country, and even a couple of states, have actually tried online voting. While it did make some aspects more convenient, it also caused some unforeseen headaches.

Estonia implemented an online voting program during local elections in 2005, and became the first nation to execute general elections over the Internet. The last time they used I-voting was during the 2014 European Parliament elections, and 31% of all voters used I-voting. When you think about it, that is a pretty incredible number of people voting online. They accomplished Internet voting by implementing the Estonian ID card. It’s a national, federally regulated document - much like a passport or license - that has a smart card to permit secure online authentication. You can sign in to vote during the early election period, and change your vote as many times as you want - only the final one will be counted. The United States, however, does not have a similar national identification system, and as such, right now it would be impossible for the United States to duplicate the system. Estonian officials declared the experiment a success, and in some ways, it has been. It has been utilized in eight elections since 2005. But, computer security experts from outside of Estonia have criticized the program. They have argued that any system in which ballots are transmitted electronically cannot be trusted.

New Jersey found itself in an accidental online voting experiment after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Because the hurricane hit shortly before the presidential election, it destroyed hundreds of polling places. Not to mention, thousands of people were separated from their homes. In an effort to ensure these people could still vote in the election, Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno did something unprecedented. She temporarily identified those citizens as being overseas, thereby permitting them to request and return ballots online. Unfortunately, the email servers entirely overwhelmed. One elections official even gave his personal email address to voters for them to submit their ballot requests. Basically, it was a chaotic mess.

Washington D.C. was going to release an online voting system in 2010. To test its security, they allowed the public to test the system in a mock election. A professor at the University of Michigan gathered a small team together to test it out, and found a vulnerability within 36 hours. It was the tiniest of vulnerabilities, one mistake in hundreds of lines of code, that allowed them to exploit the whole system. Instead of immediately alerting authorities, they decided to have a little bit of fun. They changed the system to play the Michigan fight song every time a voter cast a ballot. The election officials didn’t catch on for almost two days. This is arguably one of the strongest arguments against online voting there is.

Bottom Line: We’re Not There Yet

These are just a few examples of countries that have tried online voting in one form or another. Unfortunately, security experts seem to unanimously agree: we are not there yet. Sure, we regularly exchange sensitive information over the Internet, but voting is a beast of its own and ultimately is too important. If there’s even a slight chance that the votes could be hacked, it’s simply not worth the risk. And as of right now, there is no system that would 100% guarantee security. If a hacker got into the system, they could literally change the outcome of an election, and consequently, the future of our nation. It might increase turnout, but the risk is too great to our democracy.

But don’t lose all hope. Technology is constantly improving, and there are certainly a few methods that might work when the kinks are worked out. Jeremy Garson, a University of Michigan law student, made a case for online voting in 2012. He suggests that webcams take a photo of the voters before they vote, and compare those photos to state IDs on file before their vote is officially recorded. Or, he says, the government could modify the system Michigan has in place for their state bar, in which the state gives every person a unique PIN number - akin to a social security number. This, along with the voters birthdate, could add an extra layer of security to voting. Simply put, technology is improving - and fast. Blockchain is one example of how technology is rapidly revolutionizing the world through their use of Bitcoin. They are using technology to revamp and rethink our wallets and financial security in ways that were unthinkable fifteen years ago. This all goes to show that people are experimenting with different ways to improve and increase cyber security. It’s certainly not unfathomable that voting will move to the digital space in the not-too-distant future. Just not quite yet.

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