Proponents have long been pushing the idea of online voting to improve voter turnout in the U.S. and other parts of the world. While electoral participation is at an all-time high among developed nations, figures from the World Economic Forum show that the U.S. lags behind other countries at 55%. By contrast, the country with the highest voter turnout, Belgium, is over 30 percentage points ahead.
At present, 20 states in the U.S. allow online voting. However, only a select few have that privilege, specifically military service members, their families, and expats. The general public hopes this right would be extended to them as well, with 49% of Americans aged 18–34 expressing their support. The same sentiment resonates with citizens from countries where online voting is not fully implemented such as Russia, Canada, Norway, and others.
How does Online Voting Work?
Online voting is a relatively straightforward process for practicing countries. In Estonia, where the first online polling took place in 2005, all voters need are a computer or a mobile device, Internet connection, and their national ID card. The step-by-step process looks something like this:
- Voters open the dedicated election app where they can download a voting application form on their computer or phone. The program scans if they are eligible to vote based on their computer or mobile ID’s digital signature.
- The app then shows a list of candidates.
- They tick the boxes for the candidates they want to vote for then submit their ballot. It is encrypted while in transit to the server.
- A timestamp is attached to each vote for verification later on. Voters themselves can verify if the server received their vote using a QR code.
A similar but less tech-savvy process is present in other countries where online voting is allowed. In Canada, for instance, voters are required to go to polling kiosks to complete a voting form and submit their ballots online.
What Cyber Threats are Out There?
Kathleen Fisher, a cybersecurity expert, professor, and chair of computer science at Tufts University, firmly believes that online voting is problematic. She cited the following reasons, in an interview with Big Think:
- Anything from weak credentials or bugs can compromise an Internet voting system.
- Hackers can intercept votes and rig elections should they happen to infiltrate a vulnerable Internet-based software or system successfully. They may do so by adding malicious code to the system that could derail the vote counting.
- There is no way for an average person to identify whether the voting software they’re using is the real thing.
Other cybersecurity experts in the field echo the same challenges. In a forum, Aleksander Essex, a software engineer and associate professor at Western University, used an electronic voting machine called AvS Winvote to illustrate the similar cyber risks associated with online voting.
According to Essex, the touchscreen device was deemed by computer scientists as the worst election device in history because of its minefield of security vulnerabilities. He noted that the fact that the machine uses a Wi-Fi connection, and an unencrypted one at that, is in itself a risk. Because the device uses an unencrypted connection, it could broadcast any Wi-Fi password entered into it over the Internet.
What Can be Done?
In a nutshell, experts see three solutions that can secure online voting and other systems in general:
- Manual auditing: Although painstaking, cross-checking votes manually at every stage of the tabulation process can help nip any inconsistencies in the bud.
- Optical scanning machines: These machines electronically scan paper ballots and provide local governments a kind of insurance against hacking incidents. Like any other device, it can malfunction at times or be compromised. However, the event won’t affect the integrity of the vote-counting process because paper records exist.
- Blockchain: Online voting advocates are optimistic about the potential of blockchain, a peer-to-peer (P2P) electronic ledger, to keep the online voting process secure. Though still in its early stages, a mobile-based blockchain application demonstrated its security capabilities when military absentee voters used it. It also features a biometric and facial recognition system for enhanced security.
As long as systems are threat-free and backup plans are in place, experts don’t see any reason why governments should not pursue online voting. Only time can tell, however, whether online voting adoption would be a success or a cause for national concern.