Illustration by Dave van Patten

Why We Can’t Use the Internet to Vote

Online voting would require building a separate, secure network

Every four years, America elects a president. And every four years around election time, Kim Alexander gets annoyed by the same question: Why can’t we vote over the internet yet?

“I hate the question,” says Alexander, founder of the California Voter Foundation. Voting over the internet isn’t a priority for CVF, and won’t be for the foreseeable future.

You would think an organization dedicated to “the responsible use of technology to improve the democratic process” would be for using the internet to make voting easier. Alexander did, too, once, back in the mid-’90s, shortly after she established CVF and the internet first entered the public consciousness. “But then I started to learn what about it takes to run secure elections, and how vulnerable the internet is,” Alexander says. “This internet is not a safe place to cast ballots.”

“This” being the operative word, because if we ever want to vote over the internet, we have to create a new parallel internet that prioritizes security and privacy over the open exchange of information, she says. And that might not happen in our lifetimes — even if it would likely boost voter turnout: A whopping 79 percent of Americans now have smartphones, far more than the 53.6 percent of eligible voters who participated in the last presidential election. Smartphone voting could seemingly make electing candidates and voting on ballot initiatives as easy as ordering an Uber. You fire up your voting app, exercise your democratic privilege, then go back to mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. It seems inevitable, really.

The irony is that the internet’s democratic values are exactly what prevents it from being used in elections. As this election season has shown, an open internet is an unsafe internet. Russian government hackers broke into the Democratic National Committee’s computer network in June, allowing them to read every email and instant message in the system. Two months later, voter registration databases in Arizona and Illinois were breached. “We are seeing actual attempts to interfere with our election from outside our borders,” Alexander says.

Imagine the hacking attempts when the stakes are choosing the leader of the free world. The risk of hackers manipulating voting results far outweighs any potential benefits. “The threat is real,” Alexander says.

Hackers wouldn’t even need to break into our voting system to ruin an election, says Pamela Smith of Verified Voting, a nonprofit whose mission is “safeguarding elections in the digital age.” Hackers could merely stage a distributed denial of service attack, in which they overwhelm a server with traffic, causing it to crash. One of the largest DDoS attacks in internet history occurred just two weeks ago, rendering a handful of the world’s largest websites (including Twitter, Reddit and Netflix) temporarily inaccessible. If that were to happen to a system collecting votes, the effect would be catastrophic, Smith says.

Voting over the internet would also make auditing an election nearly impossible, Smith adds. The most accurate elections involve both a paper and electronic record of a person’s vote, so they can be checked against each other in the event of a counting error. That option wouldn’t exist if all the votes exist solely in the cloud. “On a purely electronic voting system, you can see when odd things occur, but it’s hard to prove if they are odd and correct, or odd and wrong,” Smith says.

Internet voting wouldn’t necessarily increase voter participation anyway, she adds. Estonia became the first country in the world to use internet voting for parliamentary elections in 2007. Estonia safeguards against hacks and fraud by requiring voters to insert IDs into a card reader and later verify their ballot with a digital signature. Estonians can also verify the SIM cards on their phones, turning it into an electronic ID. When they cast votes online, a PIN is sent to their phones, and they must enter it on their ballot to verify their selections. Votes are encrypted, and citizens can complete a two-step verification system to confirm their vote was counted. Security officials constantly monitor the results for suspicious activity and personal data is separated from the votes before they’re counted.

But a 2010 study from Central European University in Budapest says internet voting didn’t attract a significant number of new Estonian voters. Instead, internet voting replaced the ballot booth for many pre-existing voters.

And yet paper voting still seems arcane. Every industry, every corner of our lives, is gradually being digitized. The internet has made obsolete everything from hailing a taxi to writing a check. It would only seem a matter of time before paper ballots suffer the same fate.

Say we could build the infrastructure needed for a secondary, election-only internet, and had the money and manpower to constantly upgrade its security and ward off would-be hackers. The cost would be astronomical, so much Alexander couldn’t even estimate it. (Banks have spent billions upgrading their digital infrastructure, for instance, and they, too, were hacked this year.)

Even if this secure internet were to exist, there would still be one last dilemma to solve for: The system would have to simultaneously keep votes anonymous and ensure each person casts only one vote.

Preventing someone from casting multiple votes seems plausible now that phones recognize fingerprints, and adding a retina scanner to a phone seems within the realm of possibility. But tying someone’s vote to their personally identifiable information would compromise ballot privacy, one of our oldest and most sacred democratic values, Alexander says. Without ballot privacy, elections are susceptible to coercion and vote selling, she adds.

The timeline on internet voting is between sometime in the next 15–20 years to never in our lifetimes, says Smith.

“It’s not for lack of wanting internet voting,” says Alexander. “I’m sure [internet voting] would be exciting, but I don’t see it in the near future.”