Voting on Your Phone? One Election Is Testing It (but There Are Concerns)

Voting on Your Phone? One Election Is Testing It (but There Are Concerns)

More than a million registered voters in the Seattle area can now cast a ballot for an obscure election using a smartphone or computer. Organizers are calling the pilot program the largest mobile voting effort in the country.

“This election could be a key step in moving toward electronic access and return for voters across the region,” said Julie Wise, the director of elections in King County, in a statement released on Wednesday by Tusk Philanthropies, the nonprofit partnering with the county’s board of elections.

The vote in King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, will fill an open spot on the board of the King Conservation District, an agency that manages natural resources. Beginning this week, eligible voters will be able to use a smartphone or computer to log into a portal created by Democracy Live, a Seattle-based company that receives government funding.

“There’s no special app, there’s no electronic storage of votes. Instead a voter’s choice is recorded onto a PDF, which they then verify before submission,” Ms. Wise said in an email on Thursday.

Once the ballots are received, the board will follow the same processing protocols that are used for mail-in ballots, she added.

“I have complete confidence in the security of this system,” Ms. Wise said, adding that the county had no plans to move to mobile voting or electronic returns for any other elections in King County.

Previous elections for the conservation district have had such low turnout that voters have had to request a ballot to participate, and the cost of mailing out ballots would have been prohibitive, said Bea Covington, the district’s executive director.

“We felt like this was an acceptable approach for us,” she said.

Some experts, though, are cautious about increasing the availability of mobile or online voting, especially for mainstream elections, because of the security risks involved with transmitting sensitive information over the internet.

Marian Schneider, the president of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan group that promotes the integrity of elections, pointed to a recent data breach at a large supermarket chain, Wawa, which would have more resources to devote to security than local election offices.

“It begs the question of how these election officials, who do a great job with insufficient resources, are going to keep this safe,” she said.

The pilot comes at a time of widespread concern that the voting system in the United States remains vulnerable to foreign interference. In July, the Senate Intelligence Committee reported that all 50 states were targeted by Russia during the 2016 elections.

Although there has not been any evidence that votes were changed, the threat remains, said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a nonpartisan research group in Washington.

“Making voting more accessible is a laudable goal,” he said, “but accessibility needs to be balanced with security.”

Voter confidence is also at stake, he added. Forty-one percent of Americans surveyed for an NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist poll released this week said they feel the country is unprepared to keep the November election safe.

More and more places, especially battleground states, Mr. Becker said, are turning to paper ballots so there is a physical and verifiable record that can be audited.

“It’s important to have an election where winners and losers have confidence that the process came up with the right result,” Mr. Becker said.

Other mobile voting pilots, including in West Virginia, have made the technology available only to disabled voters or veterans and residents overseas. This will be the first election in the country in which all those who are eligible will be able to vote online, according to Tusk Philanthropies, an entity founded by the venture capitalist and political strategist Bradley Tusk.

“This is a new idea,” Mr. Tusk said in an interview on Thursday, which is why they are starting with smaller elections.

Bryan Finney, the president of Democracy Live, said the portal’s security was reviewed by researchers at SLI Global Solutions, an independent laboratory approved by the Elections Assistance Commission.

The technology has been used in more than 1,000 elections in the United States without any security concerns, he added.

In Washington state, voters are accustomed to casting their ballots by mail instead of turning up at the polls.

For this race, voters can gain access to a ballot through the portal using their name and date of birth. Voters can print the ballot, sign it and send it in the mail. Or, they can submit it online with an electronic signature. The board of elections will print a secure copy and verify the signature before the vote is processed.

“At the end of the process,” Mr. Finney said, “there is a paper ballot involved and nothing is processed unless that signature is matched.”

The voting period, which began on Wednesday, runs through Feb. 11.

Charles Stewart III, a director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, said that internet voting may be an inevitability, but the systems are not yet ready for prime time.

“At this particular moment, we need extreme caution in putting these systems out in the wild,” he said, “and we, the public, need to be very careful in what we conclude from these pilots.”

After plans for the online vote were announced on Wednesday, Secretary of State Kim Wyman of Washington, whose office oversees other elections in the state but not this one, said in a statement that her office is seeking to roll back the use of electronic ballots.

“Cyber experts I have worked with — including the F.B.I., the Department of Homeland Security and the Washington National Guard — overwhelmingly have identified electronic transmission as too risky for voting and could leave voter information and election infrastructure impaired,” she said. “As the chief election officer for the state of Washington, I’m not willing to take that risk.”

Mr. Tusk, whose philanthropy has funded nine jurisdictions testing mobile voting, including the one in King County, said so far there had been only one attempt at hacking “and the system did what it’s supposed to do.”

“The current system is irreparably broken,” he said, adding that it would be a mistake to let the fear of hacking prevent efforts to make improvements.

“To me, doing nothing is the same thing as giving up,” he said. “I want to try to find a way to fix it.”


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