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Is Internet Voting for Michigan’s Military Spouses Safe?

Proposed legislation would expand electronic ballot return for deployed military members to their spouses and voting-age dependents, but many are worried that the extension could risk the security of the state’s elections.

a veteran from the back
Because of an editing error, this story has been corrected. House Bill 4210 would expand electronic ballot return for deployed military members to their spouses and voting-age dependents.

In Michigan’s quest to make voting more accessible in recent years, it has enacted automatic voter registration, excuse-free absentee voting and an upcoming early in-person voting period.

But the latest proposal worries some of the same election security experts who have praised the changes and worked with Democrats in charge: returning ballots over the internet.

The idea is “well intentioned” but could “seriously undermine the security of Michigan’s elections,” said J. Alex Halderman, a University of Michigan professor and nationally recognized cybersecurity expert.

Halderman and other experts warned House elections committee lawmakers Tuesday in a hearing on House Bill 4210. It would expand electronic ballot return for deployed military members, allowed by legislation that passed last year and will be implemented in 2024, to their spouses and voting-age dependents.

“The bedrock of Michigan elections has long been the simple fact that every vote is cast on a piece of paper which can’t later be changed in any kind of cyber attack,” said Halderman, who was appointed by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to co-chair an election security commission for 2020.

But Benson argues Michigan can maintain its election integrity by continuing conversations with national cybersecurity professionals and federal agencies, and by following the lead of the 31 other states that have implemented this.

“We’re exploring a hybrid model that would be custom-built for Michigan and still require the voter overseas to print and sign their ballot before scanning and returning it,” said Benson, who once lived on a military base with her husband.

Similar to how Colorado does it, she explained, the local clerk would print what is returned and run it through the tabulator, creating an auditable paper trail. Voters would also be encouraged to mail a follow-up hard copy of their ballot.

She added that this electronic voting portal is already being built to support military members because of the law passed last year.

But Benson’s own election security advisory commission, Halderman said, along with the top federal cybersecurity, voting technology and law enforcement agencies have “all agreed that no existing technology can resolve such systems’ inherent vulnerability to digital tampering.”

In the November 2020 election, which saw Michigan’s highest turnout ever at more than 5.5 million voters, about 3,500 servicemembers, spouses and dependents requested ballots be mailed to them on a base.

The rejection rate for Michigan military and overseas ballots that year was five times higher than the overall rate. Mail delays are a top blame. To fight this, Michigan recently implemented six extra days to return ballots from overseas.

“It’s one of those things that it just breaks the heart when you receive a ballot a day or two too late to be counted for an election,” said Lansing Clerk Chris Swope, supporting HB 4210 on behalf of Michigan’s municipal clerks association.

But even if Benson’s proposal of an accompanying auditable paper trail sounds secure in theory, Rutgers University law professor Penny Venetis testified, there’s too much risk.

About a decade ago, Washington, D.C., implemented a typical electronic ballot return system that took Halderman’s team at U-of-M just 48 hours to remotely hack and change every vote before they could be printed.

“Although she’s coming from a very good place, she’s simply wrong,” Venetis said of Benson. “At this time, there is no such thing as secure, internet-based voting. Period.”

It’s rare that voting security experts disagree with Michigan election officials, who have made the state a “leader in election security,” Halderman said, but HB 4210 would “jeopardize” that position right before a presidential election.

“At a time when elections continue to face potential attacks from America’s adversaries and when voter confidence is being undermined for political advantage,” he said, “Michigan cannot afford exposing our democracy to these grave risks.”

He did note, however, “there’s some potential” in having the person overseas mail back an additional paper ballot.

Experts’ security concerns will be taken into consideration, House elections chair Penelope Tsernoglou, D- East Lansing, told MLive. But Benson, she added, experiences Michigan’s elections firsthand.

“So, I would trust her as the foremost expert,” she said.

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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