According to Bloomberg.com, the November 6th election marks the first time twenty-three states—almost half—will permit the submission of e-mailed or online ballots for the use of Americans in the military or overseas. While no one would deny these Americans their right to vote, the use of the Internet to facilitate the process poses disturbing security concerns.
With Internet ballots comparatively few in number and dispersed over a large number of districts, it is unlikely these security problems will affect this particular election. Nevertheless, the overall increasing reliance on the Web in elections poses a significant threat.
When most people hear “Internet” and “security risk”, the word “hackers” automatically comes to mind. While the chances of an individual hacker outwitting the government are slim and the probability of an organized hacker attack is lower still, the fact remains that our government is woefully outmatched in terms of Internet security. Our best minds are often attracted to the private sector and even then, top security banks have encountered thefts via hacking.
Speaking from personal experience, way-back-when in my high school days, some bankers were good enough to speak to my school's chapter of the Junior Statesmen of America. They told us that if we were to engage in cyber-warfare right now, we would probably lose. While our more technologically-savvy rival nations are not particularly likely to interfere in our elections, we should not offer them such an opportunity.
But the problem of malicious individuals and organizations using the Internet against us is still largely theoretical. The most real threat online voting poses is to voter privacy. For an online vote to be valid, the sender must prove his or her identity in some way. In brief, this makes it possible for election officials to know for whom someone has voted.
Individual officials are not meant to have that sort of power; it is not a given that they will abuse this knowledge, but again, the benefits of taking the risk are not equal to the possible consequences.
Furthermore, the absence of a paper trail does not equate to the absence of information; unfortunately, the information on the Internet can be accessed by anyone savvy enough. In fact, there are a multitude of security threats specific to emails. Stealing or otherwise exposing email accounts is one of the most common forms of Internet crime.
Again, this is not a guarantee, but in the words of Pam Mitchell, acting head of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, the government agency handling military and overseas voting, “The return of voted ballots via e-mail inherently risks loss of privacy”.
The secret ballot is one of the fundamentals of voting in America for a reason; without it, it is possible for outside entities to pressure individual voters into voting outside their best interests.
Tammany Hall-scale electoral corruption will not result from the use of online ballots in this particular election, but the use of online ballots at this particular time—a time in which current security measures cannot guarantee our privacy—unfortunately takes America a step in this direction.
The Internet is magical in how easy it is to use. If online voting becomes available to more people, as has been the trend over the past few elections, people will vote this way. Online voting will not remain in obscurity forever; which is why lawmakers need to take action against it now and hold it at bay until such a time as the Internet is secure.
But, the very most magical thing about the Internet? It renders distances nearly irrelevant, which in this context means enfranchising many people who could not otherwise participate in the democratic process. While the Internet can one day enable Americans everywhere to vote quickly and easily, that day should not be today.