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Internet voting remains insecure, says AAAS EPI Center

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Science  25 Sep 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6511, pp. 1577-1578
DOI: 10.1126/science.369.6511.1577

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Interest in online voting has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

PHOTO: JENNI GIRTMAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Many Americans turn to the internet for shopping, banking and—particularly in the midst of a historic pandemic—schooling and work. Is voting online next? Although some policy-makers and election officials are researching or piloting programs to allow voters to cast their ballots via computer or mobile app, nearly every expert in the field of election security agrees: Internet voting is not secure, and it is unlikely to be any time in the foreseeable future.

Current technologies cannot guarantee the “secrecy, security, and verifiability” of any ballot sent over the internet, leaving online voting systems vulnerable to vote manipulations and privacy breaches, according to a comprehensive 2018 report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science's Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues, which gathers and distills scientific information for policy audiences, is focused on making sure decision-makers are aware of the latest scientific evidence on the dangers of online voting.

The EPI center's previous work on voting technology and security issues had focused mostly on the accessibility and security concerns associated with different types of electronic voting systems, as well as the importance of statistically sound postelection audits to ensure that results can be verified. Internet voting had been under the center's umbrella of “the future of voting,” but with the 2020 election approaching and interest in online voting increasing, the EPI Center has emphasized this facet of election security to let decision-makers know that's where online voting belongs—in the far future.

“Internet voting is one thing that everyone in election security tends to agree on,” said Steve Newell, who leads the EPI Center's voting technology and security outreach. “There are areas of disagreement, but there's really not much on internet voting. Everyone from the ACLU to The Heritage Foundation to the Brennan Center for Justice is pretty much on the same page here.”

Experts within the federal government agree. In May, the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the FBI, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology issued a joint risk assessment, warning that allowing voters to submit their completed ballots over the internet is high-risk.

This unified stance on the dangers of online voting means that the EPI Center has been able to work with a number of other organizations and experts to amplify their voices and share the scientific evidence with policy-makers. This spring, for instance, the EPI Center teamed with allied organizations to provide evidence on a bill in Puerto Rico that would have implemented internet voting in the territory as early as this year and opened it to all voters by 2024.

Building on a range of outreach efforts like letters and webinars, the EPI Center, along with ACLU Puerto Rico, Verified Voting, the Brennan Center, and University of Michigan computer scientist J. Alex Halderman, met virtually in May with the office of Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced to share the latest scientific evidence that shows internet voting is insecure. When the bill arrived on Vázquez Garced's desk the next week, she vetoed it.

In a 14 May tweet, Vázquez Garced called for an amended version of the bill, one that takes into account “las preocupaciones sobre la seguridad del voto por internet”—“concerns about the security of online voting.”

“Scientific evidence can be incredibly useful in policy-making, but too often, it is undervalued and can sometimes be difficult to access or understand,” said Michael Fernandez, director of the center, during a recent Q&A with AAAS members. “We make it easier for policy-makers and other decision-makers to access relevant scientific evidence and then integrate that evidence into their decision-making process.”

The outreach in Puerto Rico is just a fraction of the work that the EPI Center has done around the country related to internet voting. In April, the center joined with other groups and experts to send letters to governors, secretaries of state, and state election officials letting them know that internet voting is not secure. The bulk of their efforts are targeted at the local and county level, where many of the decisions related to elections are made. Since launching its effort on election security in 2019, the EPI Center has focused on providing information to more than 1,000 election officials in 772 counties in 13 states, said Kathryn McGrath, the center's communications director.

In Georgia, for instance, when DeKalb County's council passed a resolution in July to research and expand access to online voting, the EPI Center reached out to the county commissioners to share the evidence that online voting is insecure, Newell said.

“This is just such a wonderful manifestation of the vision of the EPI Center and what it was meant to do—providing that help to policy-makers and bringing evidence-based decision-making into policy,” said Sudip Parikh, CEO of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals.

The EPI Center team recognizes that policy-makers and election officials have many concerns to balance, Newell added. Along with election security, decision-makers are mindful of a host of other issues, such as funding and equitable access.

“There are genuine concerns about making sure that everyone has access to the ballot—It's incredibly important,” said Newell. “We've seen in America disparities in voting going back a very long way. Those are real concerns we need to address, but internet voting unfortunately really isn't the solution to them.” In fact, he said, disparities and equity issues could be exacerbated by implementing widespread online voting in a digitally divided country.

Accordingly, the EPI Center makes sure that policy-makers and election officials are aware of alternative options that address some of the concerns that are driving interest in internet voting—and what the science says about those options. This summer, the center coauthored a report with the nonprofit Free Speech for People, “Leveraging Electronic Balloting Options Safely and Securely During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which recommends ways for jurisdictions to safely send blank ballots to voters through the internet. Remote ballot marking systems, for instance, allow voters to print their ballot, mark their choice by hand with a pen, and send the completed ballot in via the mail or deposit it in a dropbox. Voters with disabilities who are unable to mark a ballot by hand can mark their ballot electronically, then print and submit it. Either way, these options avoid the most significant security challenges of internet voting, which occur when voters submit their choices through any internet-connected device.

The EPI Center is also recommending that jurisdictions prepare to expand access to two scientifically sound alternatives to internet voting: mail-in ballots and early voting, both of which allow voters to avoid close contact with large groups of other voters on Election Day.

“There's a lot of conversation around mail-in ballots, but there's still essentially no evidence to actually support them being controversial,” said Newell. “The FBI recently stated that there is no organized fraud in vote by mail, and this is supported by the existing evidence.”

The EPI Center's outreach about the insecurity of internet voting and the benefits of alternative voting options is bolstered by new research all the time. They are making sure decision-makers know that the evidence shows that mail-in ballots confer no partisan advantage on either Democrats or Republicans, as found in a study published 26 August in Science Advances.

“Who's more excited about technological progress than AAAS, an organization of scientists?” said Newell. “Unfortunately, the science shows that the technology for online voting is not where it needs to be.”

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