Will the coronavirus bring voting into the 21st century?

Could the coronavirus lead to bringing voting completely online?
Could the coronavirus lead to bringing voting completely online?
Could the coronavirus lead to bringing voting completely online?

Will the coronavirus bring voting into the 21st century?

NY wouldn’t have to postpone elections if we could all vote online.
March 24, 2020

If you’re living in New York, staying inside and limiting social contact essentially to zero, congratulations – you’re doing exactly what public health experts say is necessary to stem the spread of the coronavirus. But what if, come the April and June primary elections, maintaining your commitment to public health means failing to fulfill your civic duty?

With New Yorkers under strict orders to essentially shelter in place with a few exceptions, a question is looming about how people who usually vote in person – meaning those who aren’t registered to vote absentee – will participate in April’s quickly approaching presidential primary, and in June’s state primary. Sure, those elections might be postponed, until after shutdown measures are eased up a bit. 

But let’s imagine the worst-case scenario, in which the stay-indoors order lasts more than a month or two, and delaying primaries – in a presidential election year, no less – is no longer feasible. It’s still not advised by public health experts to ask people to congregate at poll sites, let alone vulnerable populations, like seniors. A handful of state lawmakers are attempting to address this challenge with legislation that would either expand absentee voting – as bills introduced by Assembly members Alessandra Biaggi and Joseph Lentol would do – or institute a system of mail-in voting during times of emergency – as a bill introduced by state Sen. Jen Metzger would do.

But as lawmakers debate the best way to let New Yorkers vote from home, another option has been raised. Why not use this opportunity to explore the next frontier of civic duty: online voting. “We do everything online, from banking to filling out government forms, and there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to cast a ballot online,” said Emil Skandul, founder of the digital innovation firm Capitol Foundry. “At the present moment, we are almost entirely a digital society. We are going to be doing a lot more things online over the next six months. So we should get ready for online voting.” Skandul has argued the merits of voting online in City & State in the past.

While online voting has been the standard for years in Estonia, and states and cities in the United States have recently piloted online voting, it’s unlikely that even a pilot of online voting could be up and running in New York in time for November’s general election. And even among some of the lawmakers who have proposed expanding absentee or mail-in voting in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic or who have championed modernizing elections in the past, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in voting online in New York anytime soon. “That's something that we are going to continue to explore, but we're not at a point to implement something like that so soon,” Assemblyman Clyde Vanel told City & State. “Given the environment that we had just in 2016 about the potential hacking of our elections, and given where we are, I'm very concerned about getting any new system that can be porous and possibly be able to be hacked.” Vanel, who chairs the Assembly’s Committee on Internet and New Technology, has advocated for exploring using blockchain technology to better secure voter rolls.

For some, “online voting” may recall the horror show of February’s Iowa caucuses, in which an app used by Democratic Party officials to report results failed, leaving chaos and doubt for days about who actually prevailed. In reality, online voting would be a much larger undertaking in New York elections than in Iowa’s caucus. What we know from the couple of states that have introduced online voting pilots in the past few years is that it could involve software from one of the few major online voting companies, like Voatz or Votem. Voatz, for one, is a smartphone app that has been used in pilots in West Virginia and in Denver, Colorado. The app’s security features include using biometrics – a fingerprint scan on a smartphone – to verify a voter’s identity, and using a blockchain ledger, which essentially stores and verifies each person’s votes across multiple computer servers, which is thought to be more secure than storing the information on a single server.

By many accounts, online voting has been a success for Estonia, and pilots in the U.S. have also been hailed as successes. An audit of a recent online voting pilot in the Seattle area found that it was as reliable as standard voting methods, but had the added benefit of increased “turnout.” But security experts still say that online voting isn’t secure. Even electronic voting machines – which is what New York relies on at poll sites – aren’t perfectly secure. In the wake of widespread election tampering seen in 2016, there’s not much interest from lawmakers to take further chances on online voting. 

But that could be a mistake, Skandul argued. One of the main arguments for online voting is increasing voter turnout – which in New York, is chronically low. “This is all about the ballot accessibility," Skandul said. “Mobile voting is clearly the answer. It’s really my belief that the greatest voter suppression is forcing would-be voters to a polling site.” Of course, many voters – students, people serving in the military, those with health issues preventing them from getting to the polls – can register to vote absentee. Proposals like Lentol’s and Metzger’s would expand mail-in voting. But online voting, Skandul said, would be quicker and easier than voting by mail, and could help people with busy schedules to still fit in time to vote. Skandul also said that an advantage online voting has over absentee voting or vote-by-mail systems is that it can reach voters where they already are – on their devices.

There does seem to be increasing demand for online voting across the United States, and it’s available in some form in 32 states – though mostly for people serving in the military or living abroad. And for many of those states, “online voting” means allowing certain voters to return absentee ballots via email or fax. But recently, states like West Virginia have expanded online voting options to include other voters, like those with physical disabilities. A county in Utah also used a mobile voting app for people living overseas last year, and some lawmakers in the state are hoping to take the system statewide. One of the greatest steps for online voting came earlier this year, when all 1.2 million residents of King County, Washington – including Seattle – were given the option to vote by smartphone in a board of supervisors election.

In practice, there are several ways New York could adopt online voting, but the likeliest first step would be opening up a pilot program to test out a system for a limited group of participants. Skandul said that given the current public health crisis, if a pilot were to be launched in the coming months, that group of participants could include vulnerable populations – like older voters or voters with compromised immune systems.

To be sure, there are some substantial challenges to online voting, including security and privacy concerns, and access to the internet and digital devices. The latter challenge could presumably be solved by making online voting an option – and not a requirement. Anyone who wanted to vote online could, but you could also vote in person or absentee, for example.

The larger challenge – and the one state lawmakers reached for comment all cited – is security. Experts have said that using blockchain doesn’t necessarily make voting secure, and that cyberattacks against public entities are only on the rise. A recent audit of the Voatz app confirmed a number of security flaws, including one that could allow hackers to change votes. Voatz, still a small company, has committed to more audits like this in the future to shed light on security issues.

Lentol, who introduced a bill that would effectively mandate vote-by-mail for the April presidential primary in order to maintain social distancing, said that now is not the time to experiment with online voting. “At this moment in time, I only support voting by emergency absentee ballot solely because of security reasons,” Lentol said in an email. “In this election, there would be no time to comprehensively address security in the way needed for voting online, knowing that cyber attacks are constant by those seeking to upend American elections.”

State Sen. Jen Metzger, who introduced a bill that would require the Board of Elections to implement a plan for vote-by-mail during disasters or states of emergency, echoed Lentol’s statements. “One of the great strengths of a vote-by-mail system is a really strong paper trail. You have your ballot, it's a physical piece of paper with your signature on it,” Metzger told City & State. “We know that computers can be hacked and we've had some pretty major breaches as of late. I would be extremely concerned about conducting an election and putting our election process at risk that way.”

Skandul acknowledged those challenges, but said that our current voting procedures also have flaws, including the fact that mail-in ballots could be lost, tampered with, or take weeks to tally. He also pointed to participatory budgeting in New York City, a process which allows people to vote online for funding on certain spending initiatives in their districts. In the end, he said, if New York wanted to make the choice to invest in internet voting, it could rise to those challenges and find solutions to security flaws. "If we can build financial systems to protect trillions of dollars, we can build election systems to protect millions of votes,” Skandul said.

The good news for proponents of online voting is that even if the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t kickstart efforts to pilot the next generation of voting in New York, some lawmakers – including Lentol and Vanel – are at least interested in the prospect of internet voting (or i-voting) in the future. “Given today's technology when it comes to i-voting, obviously we're concerned about tampering, we're concerned about fraud,” Vanel said. “I don't see a technology yet that would help address these kinds of concerns. I'm not saying it won't happen in the future, but I don't see a technology yet.”

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.