Americans will choose their next president by either voting in person, which could expose them to the coronavirus, or by sending a ballot through a postal system that may not be able to deliver them on time.
Is there a better way to conduct elections? Some other countries have tried alternatives, but they’re far from perfect.
Since 2005, the small, tech-savvy east European country of Estonia has allowed voters to participate in elections online — a method of voting that’s steadily gained in popularity. Last year, more than 40% of voters cast ballots by internet.
The system stands in contrast to the infrastructure in place in the United States, where more than 100 million Americans are preparing to vote in the 2020 presidential election by filling in a bubble on a paper ballot or using a voting machine.
Places like Estonia show the possibilities for conducting elections in the internet age. Yet experts warn that some technologies carry huge security risks — and even if there were more time to overhaul voting systems, internet voting in the United States should be avoided at all costs.
“If we could build a secure internet, there’s many good things that could come out of it — and one of those things would be that we could trust it with our vote,” said Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group. “But we haven’t.”
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The promise of technology
As officials scrutinize how to conduct elections during a public health crisis, the role of technology is getting a second look. In some places, it’s been used to address pressing electoral issues and build confidence among the public.
Take Somaliland, in Africa. A few years ago, the breakaway territory in the north of Somalia — which holds its own elections — was struggling with low trust in its electoral system due to the high number of people who had registered to vote more than once.
So ahead of an election in 2017, the government started using iris scans during voter registration, after researchers at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana determined that the biometric data can be effectively used to eliminate duplicates.
“It was widely considered a success in creating a voter register that was fairly robust,” said Michael Walls, professor of development politics and economy at University College London, who led international efforts to oversee the voter registration process in 2016.
He noted, however, that the election was delayed, which meant the register was out of date by the time residents went to the polls.
Using technology requires long-term planning and can be expensive. If it’s used in the vote-casting process itself, any solutions must be rigorously tested, and faith in the system needs to be built over time.
It’s difficult to enact large-scale changes in the United States because elections are highly decentralized. And while state and local officials are rushing to replace outdated voting machines and ramp up security measures ahead of November, they typically lack the funding for bigger reforms.
In Estonia, building confidence in internet voting has been a gradual process, but appears to be yielding results. Nearly 44% of all votes were cast online in 2019’s parliamentary election, up from almost 32% in 2017.
“Trust in [internet voting] has grown slowly,” said Liisa Past, chief national cyber risk officer for the Estonian government office.
Hacks without a trace
Estonia’s ability to hold internet voting rests on its issuance of digital ID cards, which citizens use to pay taxes and conduct a wide range of government business online.
Voters must use a card reader and then enter two personal identification numbers to cast their ballots. Votes are encrypted to protect anonymity, and they can only be unlocked by vote-counting authorities.
Jonathan Stonestreet, associate director of the Democracy Program at The Carter Center, said that internet voting is popular in Estonia in large part because citizens are used to conducting government business online.
“It’s a specific set of circumstances that allows it to work,” he said. “It’s not an experience that can be copy-and-pasted to another country.”
While Estonia frames its internet voting system as a model, security experts have flagged major concerns.
Verifiability, or the ability to identify if votes have been tampered with, remains a key sticking point for online voting systems. Harri Hursti, a cybersecurity expert and independent researcher who vetted Estonia’s system in 2014, said it was no exception.
“There are so many places in that process where an advanced hacker, advanced adversary or insider could have easily manipulated [the system] without leaving any trail at all,” Hursti said.
A report written by Hursti and other researchers that year concluded that Estonia’s infrastructure contained “serious architectural limitations and procedural gaps that potentially jeopardize the integrity of elections.”
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a prominent multilateral organization that observed the 2019 election, said in its report that Estonia had strengthened the integrity of its systems and that its updated design “constitutes a significant improvement over earlier versions.”
But the group noted that while “important steps” were taken to guard against external attacks, “the detection and prevention of internal attacks has been largely omitted.”
Other countries, including Switzerland, have explored internet voting but later backed away from the practice due to security fears.
At the start of 2019, online voting was offered in 10 Swiss cantons, or federal states. But “serious flaws” were found in the source code of one system, and trials were brought to an end last year. Internet voting is currently not an option in the country.
“If e-voting systems are to be used in popular votes and elections they must fulfill the highest security requirements,” the Swiss government said in a statement in June. It’s currently working to get trials back up and running.