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Our response to the September 2023 NPR piece about online voting

A recent NPR article follows a familiar trend of relying on academics who intentionally distort the facts about mobile voting — providing a deliberately misleading account for how electronic ballot return is used today and ignoring the proven technology that experts agree will make it more secure in the future. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge that this article and others face is that, by relying on cryptographers who have a distorted idea of public policy and falsely claim to represent a consensus view, they fail to fully address why hundreds of thousands of Americans are already voting online, why successful federal lawsuits are ushering it into more states, and why additional state legislatures are looking for ways to bring accessible voting to even more groups of voters. 

The answer is simple: many voters have no meaningful ability to vote without online options. 

Some people in the academic community (including those quoted in the article) propose a false proposition- that we must choose between access and security, suggesting we cannot achieve both. 

Numerous election security experts have made it clear that it is indeed possible to hold elections that are both secure and accessible, yet the reporter was led to believe by academics that such a tradeoff is inevitable.  This misleads the public, scaring people into believing that the security community is united in thinking that online voting is not secure and never will be.  Along with many other experts, we fundamentally disagree and believe online voting options, including mobile voting, are not only necessary, but can be done securely to ensure all eligible voters can vote while protecting the integrity of our elections.

The integrity of our elections depends on the ability of all eligible voters to vote. 

All voting systems must protect the security and integrity of elections. Academics who write about election security typically restrict their focus to three elements: that ballots are cast and counted correctly, that only eligible voters can vote, and that ballot secrecy is maintained.  Each of these are necessary for election integrity, but they are not sufficient.  What if not all voters are able to cast a ballot?  How can we claim the election is secure if millions of voters are unable to vote?

Unfortunately, existing voting options leave too many voters out.  Studies have affirmed this fact for years. 

Consider military and overseas voters.  They are unable to vote in person, and voting by mail is fraught with difficulty and security issues given unreliable foreign postal delivery systems.  Consequently, these voters vote at the lowest rate of all eligible voters. In fact, just 8 percent of eligible citizens living outside of the country successfully voted in 2020. And only 47 percent of eligible military voters voted that year. The Federal Voting Assistance Program consistently finds that at least 40 percent of eligible military and overseas voters want to vote but can’t because they cannot overcome the numerous barriers they face in receiving and returning a ballot by mail. 

Voters with disabilities similarly have also been underserved by existing voting options for decades. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that every voting option must allow a voter with a disability to cast a ballot independently and privately.  Yet, security experts would prefer to create a loophole in this landmark legislation over technology that complies with the law.  

Despite the federal guarantee in the ADA, voters with disabilities continue to face barriers to voting, and are too often unable to exercise their right to vote. In the 2020 general election, for example, voters with disabilities voted at a 7% lower rate than voters without disabilities of the same age, a gap representing over two million fewer voters.  Blind voters faced particular barriers to voting, with over 22% reporting difficulty voting by mail, and just 54% reporting they were able to successfully vote in person without problems.

Advocates for voters with disabilities have decried the movement toward hand-marked paper ballots, whether cast in person or by mail. Any paper ballot requirement is inherently inaccessible, especially for a voter who is blind or print disabled.  That is why the Help America Vote Act requires that each polling place have at least one accessible ballot marking device so that voters with disabilities can mark and cast a ballot without needing to handle a piece of paper.  

Absentee voting must also be accessible, which is why state legislators, election officials, and federal judges have supported the expansion of electronic ballot return to voters with disabilities as well as military and overseas voters to ensure all voting options are accessible. 

We recently published a white paper detailing how other groups, including tribal community voters and young voters, face steep challenges to voting in person or by mail and would similarly benefit from expanded access to online voting options like mobile voting.

Security and access are not in opposition. We can achieve both.

Every voting method carries security risks.  Polling places can be targeted for bomb threats, lose power, be poorly supplied, or closed due to a natural disaster.  Voting by mail carries risks like lost or misdelivered ballots. And while some experts consider hand-marked paper ballots the most desirable option for election security, even this method carries risk of errors that often lead to under-voted or mis-counted ballots. In close contests, the results of an election may well depend on the error rate in hand-marked paper ballots.

Like other methods of voting,  online voting has its own risks. But like other methods, these risks can be mitigated such that online voting is just as – or even more – secure  than other voting options. Several studies, including from the Federal Voting Assistance Program and the Government Blockchain Association, have found that the risks of returning ballots over the internet are marginally lower than the risks of returning ballots by mail, particularly for the voters with the biggest accessibility challenges.  And audits conducted by the National Cybersecurity Center of ballots cast using mobile voting systems have confirmed that the systems have withstood attacks.

Experts, including the working group at Berkeley, have advised that before online voting can be expanded to more voters, it must meet key requirements, most notably end-to-end verifiability. End-to-end verifiable (E2E-V) voting systems use advanced cryptography to protect the integrity of the ballot, while providing voters with tools to independently verify that their ballot is cast, received, and counted correctly.  Such E2E-V systems exceed the evidence voters have when voting by mail or in person. 

So-called experts ignore the recommendation of the rest of the academic community and ignore the fact that E2E-V voting systems are already in use in U.S. elections, including for in-person voting and voting over the internet. The Election Assistance Commission’s newest voting system guidelines even include standards for end-to-end verifiable voting systems. (See Principle 9 in the latest Voluntary Voting System Guidelines.)

The VoteHub system developed with our grant funding meets those standards, and we believe it will establish a new gold standard for secure and accessible mobile voting.  The system is currently in testing to ensure it meets the highest standards for cybersecurity, accessibility, and usability.

Our democracy is in crisis and the status quo is not sustainable.

Mobile voting is critical to ensuring we can solve the crisis in our democracy. Voter turnout is among the lowest in the western world, and Americans increasingly doubt not only the results of elections but also whether democracy is the best form of government

A key reason for this crisis is the fact that all of the political incentives reward dysfunction and hyper partisanship.  Thanks to partisan gerrymandering, most representatives are effectively elected in primaries when voter turnout is typically below 20%.  Such low turnout means that only the most engaged partisans vote, so politicians only care about not upsetting their respective party base and avoiding a primary challenge from their right or left flank. 

We believe that to change that incentive structure, we need to dramatically increase turnout, especially in primary and local elections.  And the best way to increase turnout is to make voting much easier and more convenient with mobile voting.  

Americans have never shied away from a challenge simply because some thought it was too difficult or not achievable. The same is true for mobile voting.  Despite what the skewed NPR piece implies, we know mobile voting is possible, which is why we’re supporting efforts to increase the security and verifiability so we can lower the barriers to the ballot box, ensure more Americans are able to exercise the most fundamental right of our democracy, and begin to restore confidence in our democracy.