Why Haven’t Pandemic Changes to Voting Processes Included Online Voting?

About the Author: Sarah Kerman is a first-year law student at American University- Washington College of Law. 

 

So many aspects of life have shifted from in-person to online as a result of the global pandemic.  Voting in federal elections, however, has yet to do so.

The 2020 presidential election spurred a range of state policy responses about how to adjust absentee voting policies to limit the potential interpersonal exposure involved in in-person voting.[1] Five states opted for an exclusive mail-in ballot approach, while other states divided their electoral administration resources between administering absentee ballots and maintaining in-person voting.[2] No state’s response included online voting.

The Federal Elections Commission, in a rulemaking designed to modernize regulatory language around campaign contributions via electronic transactions, acknowledged the extent to which communication, information-gathering, and secure transactions occur online.[3]  Like voting in federal elections, the Census is also a constitutionally-mandated process, gathers sensitive information, and influences congressional representation.  The Census has begun the shift to online participation in an effort to expand access, moving the 2020 Census primarily online, maintaining the option for write-in or phone participation for individuals without internet access.[4]  If the objectives are to broaden access and minimize person-to-person contact, it is not hard to see why developing and maintaining a secure method of casting ballots online seems promising.

Why has online voting lacked momentum?

Online voting in federal elections existed in a very limited capacity over two decades ago.

In the Voting Over the Internet Pilot project, 350 members of the armed services had the opportunity to cast ballots online in the 2000 election.[5]  The program was later cancelled due to a subsequent report citing fundamental security issues with online voting.  Since the pilot program, there have still been efforts to invest in infrastructure to allow servicemembers to vote online.  The Department of Defense’s Federal Voting Assistance program has funded grants to states for research online voting ballot delivery tools for members of the military and citizens living overseas.[6]

In the years since the pilot project, recent inquiries into prospects for online voting have still cited a great potential for cybersecurity vulnerabilities in online voting systems.[7]  Among the vulnerabilities are the potential for interference via malware and limited ability to audit systems and verify results. Those security concerns extend to Omniballot, a system used by a few states to allow a limited number of voters to cast ballots online; for example New Jersey used the software to assist residents in voting who had been displaced by Hurricane Sandy.[8]

This year, the states that adapted voting procedures for the 2020 primary and election have the opportunity to evaluate the changes and assess whether the expansions of absentee ballots are workable in future elections.  Though considered technologically infeasible at present, it remains to be seen whether online voting will be a possibility at some point in the future.  It is unclear whether a federal grant designed to develop online voting systems for a broader population will take hold.

 

[1]Kate Rabinowitz, Brittany Renee Mayes, At least 84% of American voters can cast ballots by mail in the fall, Washington Post (Sept. 25, 2020). https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/politics/vote-by-mail-states/

[2] VOPP: Table 18: States With All-Mail Elections

https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/vopp-table-18-states-with-all-mail-elections.aspx (last visited Feb. 20, 2021).

[3]81 FR 76416 – Technological Modernization (Nov. 2, 2016). https://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/FR-2016-11-02/2016-25102.

[4] Prepared Statement of DR. STEVEN DILLINGHAM DIRECTOR U.S. CENSUS BUREAU U.S. DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE Before the House Oversight and Reform Committee U.S. House of Representatives February 12, 2020 https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/about/about-the-bureau/statements/20200212-directors-statement.pdf

[5] U.S. Congressional Research Service. The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act: Overview and Issues. (RS20764; July 30, 2015), by Kevin J. Coleman.  https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS20764.pdf (last accessed Feb. 20, 2021).

[6] Grant Programs. https://www.fvap.gov/eo/grants (last visited Feb. 20, 2021).

[7] Securing the Vote. The National Academies Press. https://www.nap.edu/resource/25120/interactive/ (last visited Feb. 20, 2021).

[8] Michael A. Specter1 and J. Alex Halderman. Security Analysis of the Democracy Live Online Voting System. (June 7, 2020). https://internetpolicy.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/OmniBallot-1.pdf

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