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States Expand Internet Voting Experiments Amid Pandemic, Raising Security Fears


How do you prepare for an election with possible historic voter turnout amid a pandemic? Online voting could be part of the answer. NPR's Miles Parks has been looking into this and joins us now. Good morning, Miles.


MARTIN: So you are reporting that a number of states are planning these pilot programs to offer electronic voting to some voters. Explain. How would this work?

PARKS: Yeah, so this is a system provided by a Seattle-based company called Democracy Live that's allowing some states to offer electronic ballot return through a web portal to some of their voters. West Virginia passed a law earlier this year allowing voters with disabilities to vote this way, and now two more states are likely coming on board. Delaware confirmed to me that they'll be piloting the technology in their June primary, and New Jersey is also considering offering the technology, according to an election official who I spoke with who's familiar with their plans.

But it's important to note that this is only for use in these states for overseas and military voters and voters with disabilities. It's still a really, really small subset of voters. But it does mean that we're probably in a situation where 2020 is going to see the most online Internet voting of any presidential election ever. And advocates see it as the beginning of a new future for voting, not something that is just stopping here with these small population blocs.

MARTIN: Right. All right. So even though it's a small number of voters who are going to be able to do this, let's talk about the pros and the cons. The country is still, obviously, reeling from the Russian interference in the 2016 election.

PARKS: Sure.

MARTIN: I imagine there are concerns about vulnerabilities of this online system.

PARKS: Yeah. There are plenty of concerns, which is why people who want to use this technology and people want to advocate for it don't really prefer the term Internet voting. I talked to Democracy Live founder Bryan Finney, and he explained the company's cloud-based system to me.

BRYAN FINNEY: Online voting is a pretty broad term. In fact, it's a loaded term. Really, what this is - it's a secure portal. If anything, it's a document storage application.

MARTIN: This feels like semantics, though. The ballots are transported through a cloud, right? How is that not Internet voting?

PARKS: Exactly. I mean, I reached out to a number of cybersecurity experts with this explanation, and they had a number of different variations of basically saying, no way, this is Internet voting 100%. Here's Dan Guido, who's the co-founder of a cybersecurity firm called Trail of Bits.

DAN GUIDO: It's Internet voting. At the end of the day, it's still trusting a computer to record a vote correctly.

PARKS: Another expert emailed me saying, and I quote, "sorry, but what a load of BS." So the other consistent thing here, other than that kind of response, is that these experts seem to think that there are probably some vulnerabilities in this system. There hasn't been an independent security audit that's been made public yet by the company, and without that, no one in the security world can say for sure that this is a safe way to transmit ballots, even for a small number of voters.

MARTIN: Huh. Well, then how do advocates for these online programs combat those critiques?

PARKS: Basically, by saying that the risk is worth the benefit of the increased accessibility. You know, a lot of the push right now in the voting world is toward mail voting systems. But disability rights advocates, I should say, basically say that the push for mail voting potentially leaves a lot of voters who have more unique needs behind. You think about blind voters or voters who have trouble writing. How are they supposed to, you know, fill out a mail ballot easily? I talked to Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman.

KIM WYMAN: While it seems like electronic voting would really solve a lot of problems, it would create far more mistrust than I think we have the risk appetite for.

PARKS: What she says, basically, is it's hard to get anyone to trust the legitimacy of an election when it's electronic at all.

MARTIN: Yeah, an important balancing act there. NPR's Miles Parks, we appreciate it.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.