Voting online would not be a safe guarantee, given a number of logistical problems, such as hackers.
With the simple click of a button, Internet users can shop, pay bills and obsess over social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
As of Nov. 2, United States overseas and military voters will also be able to use the Internet to cast their ballots for the midterm elections.
What is troubling to election officials is that the Internet is often prone to a range of malfunctions and problems, including privacy breaches, especially when it comes to shopping, paying bills and social networking.
Voting for elected officials would undoubtedly be added to that list.
“Computers are open to hacking, and a lot of people in other countries are intent on disrupting everything,” said Mark Cohen, an assistant adjunct professor of political science. “We also have people in our own country trying to do the same thing.”
Time magazine reported on Oct. 15 that the Board of Elections and Ethics in Washington, D.C., tested online voting and invited hackers to attempt breaching the system’s defenses. After one day of testing, J. Alex Halderman, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan who led the hacking assault, and his graduate students found a flaw in the system’s design and were able to change ballots and serenade online voters with the university’s fight song.
It’s understandable why election officials would want to give voters this opportunity. Although Washington’s test trial led officials to cancel online voting, 33 states, including Arizona and West Virginia, are still following through with the online ballot casting because of the problems overseas voters often encounter.
A 2009 Pew Center study found that 16 states did provide military members, their spouses and other citizens overseas an adequate amount of time to vote.
Congress passed the Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment Act last year to require states to get ballots to overseas citizens 45 days before an election, but the instant gratification afforded by the Internet seems attractive because of the short time it would take ballots to reach officials.
But overseas voters are too critical in elections to risk hacking dilemmas. Cohen said that in November 2000, for example, overseas voters were a major factor in the Florida recount during the presidential election.
In a July 2001 article, the New York Times released its findings of the 2,490 ballots from U.S. citizens living abroad that were counted as legal votes despite many that were postmarked after the election or not at all.
The report found 680 questionable votes and said that “although it is not known for whom the flawed ballots were cast, four out of five were accepted in countries carried by [former President George W.] Bush,” and that overseas ballots, which were “the only votes that could legally be received and counted after Election Day, were judged by markedly different standards, depending on where they were counted.”
It’s bad enough complications grew out of the process for overseas voting, but to place that process online and add hacking to the mix is asking for a disaster of epic electorate proportions.
It isn’t hard to understand the attraction to voting over the Internet, especially if it were to ever open up to every U.S. voter.
“On the whole, voting turnout is poor, and unless you have a presidential election, turnout can sometimes be as low as 10 to 12 percent,” Cohen said. “This could turn that around because people could use excuses like ‘I can’t get off from work,’ or ‘I’m too lazy.’”
Time magazine reported that very few of the 33 states using online voting conducted a network test.
As a result of the computer-hacking potential, online voting should be put off until more secure, hack-proof systems exist.
It is a shame that voter turnout can dip as low as 10 percent in non-presidential elections. That level of turnout is not a democracy. But risking the alteration of thousands of overseas votes by one or more hackers is not a democracy either.
Josh Fernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.