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Major Questions Surround The Issue Of Voting Online

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. This is Election Day in four states. And that means if you are planning to cast a ballot, probably, you're going to have to head to a polling place, right? But will that trip always be necessary? What about voting online?

Well, NPR's Miles Parks reports that while that is becoming an increasingly realistic discussion, there are still huge questions about online voting.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: For the past two decades, anyone who knew anything about computers has said pretty consistently that mixing the Internet and voting is a terrible idea. Here's Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon, who considers himself the most cybersecurity-aware member of the Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON WYDEN: I believe that's about the worst thing you can do in terms of election security in America short of putting American ballot boxes on a Moscow street.

PARKS: And yet, here we are in the U.S., just a couple years removed from Russia's attack on American democracy experimenting with Internet voting. In the coming year, a number of jurisdictions are planning to use a mobile app for overseas and military voters, a voting bloc with traditionally low turnout rates. In West Virginia, the first state to pilot the program, Secretary of State Mac Warner says it will help troops have access to the freedoms they fight to protect.

MAC WARNER: These are the people who are putting their lives on the line for us on a daily basis, and yet, their votes haven't been counted up to this point.

PARKS: One hundred forty-four voters used the mobile app in the 2018 midterms. But most cybersecurity experts say it's a bad idea. The push recently has been back to paper ballots because they allow for the results to be double-checked in a way that guarantees an election's accuracy.

RICH DEMILLO: I come down with getting as many computers out of the process as you can.

PARKS: That's Rich DeMillo. He's the former chief technology officer for Hewlett Packard, and he's now a cybersecurity expert from Georgia Tech. He says that no computer can be truly 100% unhackable (ph). So to get the public to have full faith in its elections, the voting has to be done on paper.

DEMILLO: Every time you introduce a technology layer, you have these cascades of unintended consequences.

PARKS: But the U.S. trails most developed countries in terms of turnout rate. And some people blame the current voting system for being too burdensome, like going to the polling place, mailing in a ballot. Online voting advocates basically say that is a bigger problem than the increased risk of a hypothetical hack.

Sheila Nix is the president of Tusk Philanthropies, an organization focused on expanding mobile voting.

SHEILA NIX: If you look at the congressional primary, the voter turnout can be so low, like as low as 11% in some districts. And then that with the gerrymandering means that, you know, very few number of people are electing members of Congress, and they tend to be on the extremes on both sides of the parties.

PARKS: An Internet-based voting option would probably increase turnout and maybe by a lot. But exactly how risky would it be? The vendor that provides the app that West Virginia uses for overseas voters insists that its product is safe from hacking but has not gone through any federal certification program, and most of the under-the-hood security details remain private. That makes it almost impossible to say with certainty whether it's ready for broader use.

I asked DeMillo from Georgia Tech about how voting compared with securing other things on the Internet, like money or personal data.

DEMILLO: It's the most complex. And it's not the most complex for technical reasons. It's the most complex because it's at this wicked intersection of technology and politics and sociology and psychology.

PARKS: He also noted that breaches and fraud happen online literally every day. Companies just accept the losses as the cost of doing business. Election officials can't do that when many races are decided by small margins.

Still, Secretary of State Warner says that barring a hack, he expects Internet voting to slowly expand beyond overseas voters. He expects younger voters to demand it.

WARNER: I think that younger demographic is going to expect to be able to do that. And when they start taking over, getting elected to legislatures and Congress and so forth, I think then that's when the barriers will come down and you'll see the mobile voting take off at a much greater pace.

PARKS: Whether that actually happens remains to be seen. But it's clear now that online voting is no longer impossible to consider.

Miles Parks, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIVAL CONSOLES' "RECOVERY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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