State not ready to take on online voting until testing shows it works

November 9, 2010 

Election officials in Washington state and elsewhere have toyed with the idea of allowing voters to cast their ballots online.

But an experiment in online voting in Washington, D.C., for last week’s general election shows how easy it is to hijack a system.

This community and state must not move to electronic voting until systems are tested and retested and there is a guarantee that results are accurate and cannot be compromised.

That certainly wasn’t the case in the nation’s capital, which planned a test this year to allow several hundred voters to cast their ballots over the Internet.

Just two days before the District of Columbia’s Board of Elections and Ethics was scheduled to open the applications for voter to participate in the test, the system was hacked.

It was hacked by a team of computer scientists from the University of Michigan. The hackers took complete control of the voting website and changed the code to make it play the University of Michigan fight song.

Clever? Yes

A big concern? Definitely.

While election officials discovered the fight song gag, they did not discover — until a University of Michigan professor told them at a District of Columbia Council meeting — that the team of hackers had in fact wrested complete control over the election board’s server.

Professor J. Alex Halderman produced 937 pages of names, addresses and personal identification numbers of test voters who had signed up to try out the system. Had it been a real election, Halderman said, he could have changed the votes on ballots or revealed voters’ supposedly secret choices on the Internet.

Additionally, Halderman’s crew wasn’t the only one rooting around in the D.C. system. They noticed other attacks occurring — attacks that originated in China and Iran.

That’s a serious compromise and why many, many voters are strongly opposed to online or electronic voting. The specter of hackers in another country — an adversary — controlling U.S. election results is more than enough reason to question whether electronic voting ever will be foolproof.

Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman said South Sound voters are hostile toward online voting. She discovered that when she held a series of community meetings when Thurston County was switching from punch card voting. The question was what election system to switch to.

“It’s why we don’t have even touch screen voting in this county,” Wyman said. Those who offered comments to the election staff were outspoken in their opposition to any form of electronic voting. Wyman eventually settled on optical scan paper ballots.

Asked about the likelihood of online voting, Wyman said, “I think it’s still a long way off.”

Wyman is right when she says there are two major hurdles:

The Internet was not built as a secure method of transmitting data. It’s easily compromised, as we’ve seen multiple times where credit card or Social Security numbers have been hacked.

The second hurdle, and perhaps the most significant, is the public’s strongly held suspicions of online voting accuracy.

Wyman and Secretary of State Sam Reed are on the same page when it comes to how the state and county’s should proceed.

They note that military and overseas voters are disenfranchised under today’s voting system.

Stationed in the far corners of the world, it has proven impossible to get some of those voters a ballot and have it returned by the vote tabulation deadline.

It’s terribly disconcerting, Wyman said, to receive otherwise legitimate ballots that can’t be counted because they arrived back in the tabulation center after the deadline has passed.

County election officials now provide ballots by e-mail, which can cut seven to 10 days off the ballot turnaround time. Reed believes the next logical step is to have those ballots returned by e-mail separating the voter’s identification from the actual ballot. “It’s a cautious first step,” he said. “Online voting is some years away.”

Election officials first have to conquer the technology and create a credible, accurate and secure means of casting ballots electronically.

Then they must convince voters that’s how to proceed.

Of the two hurdles, turning voter opinion might well be the most significant challenge.

The Olympian is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service