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Could Mobile Voting Ring True?


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A voting application on a smartphone.

Mobile voting would be easier than in-person polling, but several critical concerns would need to be addressed first.

Credit: Shutterstock

Elections are the lifeblood of democracy, but they face two steep challenges: getting people to vote, and ensuring that the results of an election are accurate. "It's a process that requires the highest level of integrity and security because it comes down to national security," observes David Jefferson, a board member of non-partisan organization Verified Voting and a former computer scientist from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

For centuries, votes have been tabulated on paper—and more recently, on voting machines. Yet the digital age is slowly pushing voting into the electronic realm. Estonia has held elections online since 2005, and numerous other countries, states, and localities have experimented with the concept. For example, the state of West Virginia used mobile voting in 2018. The city of Denver used the technology for a municipal election in 2019. Oregon also has used it, on a limited basis.

"The current approach to elections in the U.S. leaves many voters behind," argues Sheila Nix, president of Tusk Philanthropies, a non-profit organization that promotes the technology. "Mobile voting provides a more accessible option for voters who face inherent barriers to voting, like military, overseas, and disabled voters." What's more, the current pandemic demonstrated how problematic, risky, and contentious voting can become, she says.

Following the Paper Trail

Although everyone believes the integrity of voting systems is critical, there's little agreement beyond that. "While current election systems are far from perfect, Internet- and blockchain-based voting would greatly increase the risk of undetectable, nation-scale election failures," says Ronald Rivest, Institute Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and an ACM A.M. Turing Award recipient.

"The alleged benefits of electronic technology are often illusory, hypothetical at best, and discriminatory in favor of the tech-savvy," says Rivest. Moreover, "A recount of paper ballots is so much simpler than trying to argue that software is correct and unmodified, and that networks were not manipulated." A November 2020 academic paper co-authored by Rivest, Going from Bad to Worse: From Internet Voting to Blockchain Voting, concluded that online voting should not move forward, because:

  • Blockchain technology does not solve the fundamental security problems suffered by all electronic voting system.
  • Electronic, Online, and blockchain-based voting systems are more vulnerable to serious failures than available paper-ballot-based alternatives.
  • Adding new technologies to systems may create new potential for attacks.

Several critical concerns exist about mobile and online voting, Jefferson says. These include authenticating voters, protecting the privacy of citizens, code transparency, building systems capable of withstanding denial of service and malware attacks, and creating an audit trail to ensure data has not been altered inadvertently or manipulated maliciously. "Right now, these systems don't measure up. There are simply too many questions about integrity and security," he states.

Yet organizations such as Voatz, Democracy Live, and Votem continue to develop and promote mobile voting platforms, and they are gaining acceptance. According to Tusk Philanthropies, an organization dedicated to saving democracy by getting more people to vote, 330 jurisdictions in eight U.S. states used remote electronic voting, including mobile voting, in 2020. Tusk supported about a third of these efforts. "All third-party post-election audits have shown no evidence of votes having been changed or manipulated," Nix says.

Vote of Confidence?

Arguments against mobile voting often overlook a crucial element, Nix says. The current voting framework is rife with problems. "The unexpected events of 2020 exposed nearly every major flaw in our current election system. …Historic numbers turned out to vote in-person, triggering long lines and wait times…amidst a deadly pandemic."

Even with an election that security experts described as the most secure in history, "The American electorate didn't get accurate counts until days after the election," Nix says. "This opened the door for bad actors to sow confusion and doubt in the ensuring chaos. Confusion, doubt, and chaos are bad for democracy."

Strong security controls and protections are built into mobile voting systems, proponents argue. Typically, citizens download an app; verify their identity using a driver's license, biometric scan, or PIN; find the relevant election and mark a digital version of the physical ballot. "The same security enhanced protections used for online banking and healthcare can extend to mobile voting systems," Nix argues.

"Any voting technology needs thorough and regular testing. This means that systems are vetted by independent and skilled researchers so that problems are found and fixed before the public begins using any type of election equipment," says Jay Kaplan, CEO at cybersecurity firm Synack, which has worked with Tusk Philanthropies to test mobile voting systems.

There's also emerging technology that could solve the security problems Rivest, Jefferson, and others describe. For example, Microsoft has introduced ElectionGuard, a platform that uses homomorphic encryption to produce verifiable, secure, auditable results. "Votes can be encrypted at the point at which voters make their selections and then tallied in encrypted form. Individual votes don't ever need to be decrypted," says Josh Benaloh, senior cryptographer at Microsoft Research.

On the Mark

Too often, critics hold paper and electronic voting to entirely different standards, proponents contend. Many of the security flaws that have been discovered in electronic voting systems would be "extremely difficult to exploit in a real-world voting situation," says Kaplan, who previously worked for the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Security Agency. What's more, he says, "Many of the voting systems in place around the country continue to run on outdated and insecure software… and even paper ballots can be tampered with."

For now, electronic and mobile voting systems are likely to remain limited to local elections and for military voting. Nevertheless, supporters of the concept remain optimistic. Says Kaplan, "In the same way that people never thought they'd be transacting online via mobile banking or submitting signatures online, we will someday find ourselves trusting the systems created to facilitate a secure online vote. The time is coming."

Samuel Greengard is an author and journalist based in West Linn, OR, USA.


 

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