Pandemic renews interest in digital ballots

Online voter turnout may increase this year as governments, voters try to protect public health...
Online voter turnout may increase this year as governments, voters try to protect public health and your right to vote. (Source: Gray DC)(GRAYDC)
Published: May. 11, 2020 at 7:52 AM CDT
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More Americans than ever shop, learn, and work online. For some, voting is next.

Originally scheduled for Tuesday, West Virginia’s primary is now June 9th, delayed to limit voters’ exposure to coronavirus.

But, Terra Muncy -- who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and is wheelchair-bound -- already cast a digital ballot from the privacy and safety of her Charleston home.

“It was pretty cool, because it was so simple,” she said.

West Virginia offered online voting to overseas military members in 2018, and opened it up to disabled voters like Muncy this year, before the coronavirus even became a consideration.

Muncy said she will likely go back to a paper ballot in the future, but the technology is critical for voters who would otherwise need to rely on others to cast a ballot, like the blind and home-bound.

"The more options people with disabilities have, the better,” she said.

With millions of Americans now stuck at home, the brains behind digital ballot box software say demand for their service is rising, but the goal isn’t to replace the polling place.

“I see this as always being a third or fourth option,” said Voatz President Hillary Braseth of online voting's future.

While the company has helped state parties hold digital conventions recently, she said their technology isn't a complete solution for this year's pandemic. “What we’re building is not ready to be used across the nation come November,” said Braseth.

Voatz provided online voting services for West Virginia two years ago, but lost the contract after computer scientists at MIT raised security concerns.

Company spokespeople disputed those findings and saying the researchers were running outdated versions of their tech.

Braseth said their system is verifiably secure, and offers digital and hard copy paper trails to double-check results.

“Trust is the most paramount thing," she said of the need to ensure voters can have faith their ballot is secure, "we’re dealing with democracy here.”

Paul Rosenzweig helped craft cyber security policy for the George W. Bush administration. He's a consultant now, and said the industry isn't sold on Voatz or any other online voting platform.

“Internet voting is just not ready yet, too many security risks," he said.

Rosenzweig said online ballots are vulnerable from the moment a voter logs-in through the time they’re tallied. He said no jurisdiction should use online voting until companies can better address security concerns.

“The effort that people are putting are into figuring out how to make online voting work, in this election… would be better spent figuring out how to make in-person voting safer in time of pandemic,” he said.

Regardless of the direction election officials take, there’s not much time left to plan, with November’s presidential election less than six months away.

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