May 20 2016

Which Parts of the Voting Process Have Moved Online?

Parts of the voting process don’t quite make sense to do online, but other components have forged full-steam ahead.

If the average citizen is looking forward to the day when ballots can be cast on the Internet in the same manner in which people buy groceries and pay bills, they’ll have to be patient — it’ll be a while.

While online voting has been deployed in small and specific cases (largely for absentee or military voters), serious security concerns exist about the integrity of online voting.

“We believe that online voting, especially online voting in large scale, introduces great risk into the election system by threatening voters’ expectations of confidentiality, accountability and security of their votes and provides an avenue for malicious actors to manipulate the voting results,” said Neil Jenkins, an official in the Office of Cybersecurity and Communications at the Department of Homeland Security, according to an article in The Washington Post.

While online voting on a massive scale remains out of reach, some parts of the voting process have moved online significantly in many states.

One area in particular where states have made progress is with shifting the voter registration process online. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 34 states allow citizens to look up their voter registration information online; a whopping 38 states currently or soon will offer online voter registration.

In a recent interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Virginia Department of Elections CIO Matthew Davis cited the migration to online voter registration in 2013 as a major achievement for the agency.

The biggest changes I have seen, however, are related to the amount of transactions voters can conduct online. In 2013, we launched our online voter registration system. Voters can now register to vote or update their registration completely online.

In 2015, we launched our online absentee application system. Voters can now apply to vote absentee through our website.

The interest in both of these systems has been increasing with each election cycle. The process on our website is much more secure than the conventional paper methods because we check a voter’s identity against their Department of Motor Vehicles record at the time of submission. It also significantly reduces the time it takes to process an application and improves the accuracy of the data in our systems.

There are benefits to adopting online voter registration too. According to the Brennan Center, when the state of Washington spent $280,000 to adopt electronic voter registration at DMVs and introduced online voter registration, the Secretary of State’s office saved over $125,000 in the first year.

The Small Experimental World of Online Voting

Of the states that are conducting online voting, it’s often restricted to overseas absentee voters and military service members. Alaska is the only state that allows all absentee voters to vote online.

But the desire to vote electronically is strong among citizens. According to a Consumer Reports survey, “39 percent of likely voters said they would choose the option to vote by computer, tablet, or smartphone in the 2016 election rather than vote by traditional methods.”

So why not forge ahead with widespread electronic and online voting? Security, accuracy and fairness are the main concerns among state officials.

“Voters may feel like we are moving backwards in technology, but given the frequency of close elections in Virginia, being able to physically recount ballots is an absolute must,” said Davis in the Times-Dispatch story.

But providing the constitutional right to vote is important for many states, particularly for military service members serving overseas. According to a story from KTVK-TV in Phoenix, the state of Arizona sent ballots (through postal mail and online) to more than 4,000 Arizonans stationed out-of-state or overseas, and while exact data on online ballots wasn’t available, five counties distributed over 2,000 electronic ballots.

“I mean these people are overseas serving our country, serving us, so we want to make sure they're able to vote,” said Maricopa County Recorder’s Office spokesperson Elizabeth Bartholomew.

The case for and against online voting has merits on both sides, but time and technology advancements are a ways off. So online voting enthusiasts, sit tight.

“It will be decades more before Internet voting can be secure,” said J. Alex Halderman, a University of Michigan professor and director of its Center for Computer Security and Society. Arizona Secretary of State spokesperson Matt Roberts pegged the implementation of widespread Internet voting in a similar time frame, saying it would take a decade or more.