Can Voting Be Done Online?

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online voting

Ever since the late 90s, people have been asking if voting can be done online. The answer has some exceptions in the U.S. and may change in the future due to the patchwork of state and local voting systems but, broadly speaking, online voting is reserved for certain individuals.

In the U.S., most voters cannot cast their ballots online. Some states and the District of Columbia, however, allow certain classes of individuals to vote over the internet such as overseas military personnel and disabled persons.

Many experts have raised concerns over the security of mass online voting systems – especially for countries with larger populations and/or that may be significant targets for foreign entities. Currently, Estonia is the only country that allows online voting for all its citizens; it’s unique circumstances may make the process more viable than it would be elsewhere. However, many experts have pointed out that their system remains vulnerable to attack.

Nevertheless, many people continue to ask if voting will ever catch up with the digital age. Below is a look at who can vote online currently, some of the obstacles to online voting for the general public, and a prediction of whether or not voting over the internet will ever be a reality.

Who can vote online?

To date, most online voting in the U.S. is reserved for citizens in special circumstances. For example, as many as 20 states and the District of Columbia have (at one time or another) allowed members of the military, their families, and/or disabled persons to vote online.

Voting regulations change frequently in the U.S. because voting systems are determined by states and local governments. For example, Alaska had an online voting system available to certain individuals which it discontinued in 2018, while West Virginia, Delaware, and New Jersey started experimenting with online systems in 2020.

Complicating things even further, each state sets its own criteria for who is allowed to vote online. Many states that allow overseas military personnel to vote online, for instance, only make the exception for active-duty members serving on the front lines.

For these reasons, if you are an overseas member of the armed forces, a merchant marine, family member of a service member, a citizen outside of the U.S., or a disabled person, it is worth checking your home state’s regulations to see if you qualify to vote online. You can find your links to your local official websites here.

Why isn’t voting online?

As we’ve seen, for the vast majority of people online voting isn’t an option. So, why not?

In general, voting is not done online because of concerns over security, anonymity, and citizen trust. Online voting is susceptible to cyberattacks and would also require voters, who may not understand the voting technology, to simply trust that the process was not manipulated at any stage.

These challenges have generally stopped lawmakers from moving toward wholly online systems. However, these concerns haven’t stopped some governments from trying to implement online voting. As noted above, Estonia is currently the only country that has online elections for the general public. This option has been available to Estonians since 2005.

Officials in Estonia point to a few key factors as to why they believe online voting is viable for their country – but, not necessarily elsewhere. For starters, the country has a relatively small population with just 887,000 registered voters as of May 2019. The U.S., by contrast, has 157 million registered voters as of 2018 with many more eligible for registration.

Estonia is also a uniquely tech-savvy country. The country has issued electronic IDs to its citizens since 2002 and, in 2014, it was the first country to implement an e-citizenship program, allowing non-Estonians to conduct online business as if they were in Estonia. This e-infrastructure has made it easier to create online election platforms in the country as voters can use their e-ID to cast their ballot with a special smart card reader.

However, several studies of Estonia’s voting system including one comprehensive review by Oxford University have repeatedly found that the system remains vulnerable to cyberattacks. Estonian officials recognize these challenges, but contend that the risk is much lower for their small country which is not necessarily a prime target for geopolitical manipulation.

Other countries have experimented with online voting only to later dismantle the system out of concern for its vulnerabilities. For example, Norway experimented with online voting in 2011 and 2013 with positive feedback from users. However, politicians had little faith in the system and raised concerns over the right to a secret ballot. Because citizens could vote from anywhere, authorities worried that some voters may be pressured by those around them to vote a certain way.

Some online voting enthusiasts were excited by the development of blockchain technology in 2008; many wondered if it would finally allow the security needed for online elections. However, after extensive reviews, many experts have found that blockchain does not necessarily solve the security issues posed by online voting.

While blockchain has been very useful for banking, there are some serious differences in voting and online fraud. Most fraudulent activity online is discovered by banks and victims and, often the issue can be resolved with relatively minor damage. While victims of identity theft may disagree that the damage was “minor” (and rightfully so), imagine if an entire country’s identity was hijacked. The high stakes nature of elections, then, makes cybersecurity vulnerabilities a much greater risk than online banking.

Nonetheless, several countries and some states in the U.S. have announced plans to move forward with implementing blockchain voting systems. Australia, Russia, and South Korea have all announced the development of such systems as well as the U.S. state of West Virginia. However, critics have pointed out that even if the systems were secure (which they don’t appear to be) most voters don’t understand the technology and will simply have to trust that their vote was not manipulated in any way.

One last note on why we don’t vote online. Many proponents of online voting point to the convenience and the fact that there is potential to raise voter turnout by making voting easier. Unfortunately, the data does not show that online voting actually increases voter turnout. Estonia has not seen an increase in its turnout nor did Norway when it experimented with its online system. In actuality then, online voting comes with many risks but very few benefits for most countries.

Will voting ever be online?

The above is primarily focused on why online voting isn’t viable in today’s technology environment. But, what about tomorrow?

Currently, it’s not probable that voting will ever be completely online; however, there is always the possibility that new technology will emerge to make online voting secure and transparent. Today’s technology experts, however, are skeptical and still recommend paper ballots.

As stated above, it’s not necessarily desirable for elections to be online as the convenience has not shown convincing data that it increases voter turnout. The risks continue to outweigh the benefits for the foreseeable future.

Have more questions about voting? Check out our Election day FAQs for more.

Dan Jasper

Dan Jasper is the founder and primary author of Street Civics. He specializes in advocacy and international affairs.

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