Online voting is risky and expensive

Online voting is an appealing option to speed voting for military and overseas voters. Yet it is actually “Democracy Theater”, providing an expensive, risky illusion of supporting our troops. Technologists warn of the unsolved technical challenges, while experience shows that the risks are tangible and pervasive. There are safer, less expensive solutions available.

This year, the Government Administration and Elections Committee held hearings on a bill for online voting for military voters. Later they approved a “technical bill”, S.B. 939. Tucked at the end was a paragraph requiring that the Secretary of the State “shall, within available appropriations, establish a method to allow for on-line voting by military personnel stationed out of state.”

In 2008, over thirty computer scientists, security experts and technicians signed the “Computer Technologists’ Statement on Internet Voting,” listing five unsolved technical challenges and concluding: “[W]e believe it is necessary to warn policymakers and the public that secure internet voting is a very hard technical problem, and that we should proceed with internet voting schemes only after thorough consideration of the technical and non-technical issues in doing so.”

The prevailing attitude seems to be, if voters and election officials like it and see no obvious problems then it must be safe.

In September 2010, Washington D.C. opened their proposed internet voting system to public testing. The system was quickly compromised, changing all past and future votes. Separately, the municipal network was entered, passwords to municipal systems obtained, and the list of codes for Internet voting in the November election were obtained.

This should not be surprising. Almost weekly we learn of one system or another that is penetrated by outsiders, including teens and overseas criminals. Organizations that have been unable to protect networks and applications include banks, government agencies, the Department of Defense, Google, and ironically, Internet security firms.

Several states have implemented various forms of Internet voting. None has subjected their systems to evaluation and testing for the difficult challenges identified by the experts. One of the “success stories” without any proof for precluding vulnerabilities is West Virginia. That state spent about $75,000 for 54 electronic votes. Over $1,300 per voter!

To the public, like some legislators, it seems intuitive to accept that “We use ATMs and bank online with no problems, why not vote that way?” This argument fails theoretically and practically. The anonymous ballot does not provide the verification and proof of banking receipts or double entry bookkeeping which help detect fraud. ATMs are bank-owned computers with special network security, much safer than general purpose computers. Even so, banks lose billions each year to fraud with ATMs and online banking. They have warned their business customers to avoid online banking.

There are better, safer, economical alternatives available. The Federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE), passed in 2009, provides for electronic distribution of ballots and absentee ballots that can be returned together in one envelope. In conjunction with the Overseas Voter Foundation, express return of ballots was available from 94 countries for $25 or less. Even regular express rates from almost anywhere are available for less than one-tenth the cost of the unproven West Virginia system. If a military and overseas voter can get to a computer network then they should be able to express their paper ballot and absentee application, at our expense, providing a safe, anonymous, and auditable vote.

To ask Secretary of the State, Denise Merrill, to accomplish what experts have not is a tall order. Especially with no budget! As Merrill testified earlier this year, “In the future, it is conceivable that we could move in the direction of online voting. But the problem is, the technology to make sure no one can hack into an online voting system and distort the vote totals has not yet been developed. We want to make voting more convenient, but not at the expense of the security or integrity of our elections…there is no on-line voting system secure enough to protect the integrity of the vote.”

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