Voting by Phone Is Convenient, But Is It Too Risky?
The option is spreading at a time of heightened fear of foreign interference in U.S. elections. It has been used in a few local elections and will be available to some voters in the 2020 presidential caucuses.
- Denver and West Virginia are the only two U.S. jurisdictions to have tested a smartphone voting app.
- Utah County, Utah, will let some voters use an app to cast ballots in its election this month.
- Iowa and Nevada in 2020 will be the first states where voting by phone is permitted in a presidential race.
At a time when some states are bringing back paper ballots, others are expanding the modes of technology that people can use to vote.
Next week, Utah County, Utah, will become the third U.S. jurisdiction -- after Denver and West Virginia -- to let some voters use a smartphone app to cast absentee ballots. Next year, for the first time ever, Democrats in Iowa and Nevada will be able to vote by phone in the presidential caucuses.
Supporters, including voting rights advocates and election technology companies, say making voting more accessible and convenient will increase turnout at the polls.
“We expect it to take minutes, rather than hours,” Shelby Wiltz, caucus director for the Nevada State Democratic Party, told Stateline. “This is going to be a great option for folks. It’s important the folks who are voting are reflective of our whole Democratic community.”
But election security experts say it will also make the voting process less secure at a time when foreign interference in U.S. democracy is a major concern. Since it was revealed that Russians hacked voting systems during the 2016 presidential race, many states have actually ditched electronic voting equipment in favor of paper ballots.
“Security experts have told us that anytime you send voter ballots over the internet, you open up the threat landscape all over the world,” says Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting, a nonprofit dedicated to election integrity.
“We’re having a tough enough time getting the appropriate cybersecurity around elections as it is, so opening up a brand new front where there’s a potential for things to go wrong is just not a good idea,” says Edgardo Cortés, a former Virginia elections commissioner who now works for the advocacy group Secure Elections for America Now.
In Nevada, the Democratic Party has hired a private company to build the system with the help of the Democratic National Committee's security experts. But critics say their plan is short on specifics about how it will be implemented and tested.
Denver and West Virginia, meanwhile, used a smartphone app pioneered by the company Voatz to expand voting options. In May 2018, fewer than 20 overseas military voters used the app to cast votes in West Virginia's local elections. That same month, more than 100 people voted absentee in Denver's elections using the app. Then, in November, 144 West Virginia voters used the platform to participate from as far away as Japan and Uganda.
In both Denver and West Virginia, local officials deemed the app a success in post-election audits, according to Stateline. Voatz says its system is secure, thanks to facial recognition software, fingerprint and driver’s license scans, encryption and blockchain servers.
“No existing method of voting (including paper ballots) is completely safe,” Voatz CEO Nimit Sawhney said in a statement. “However, we do strongly believe that with appropriate technological safeguards and the use of post-election audits, mobile voting is sufficiently secure and very suitable as an additional voting channel for citizens who can’t vote in person, especially deployed military personnel, overseas citizens and members of the disability community.”
But critics like Cortés and Schneider argue that Voatz hasn’t been transparent enough about its processes to demonstrate that votes were tabulated correctly.
The company disagrees.
"Voters receive digital receipts to verify their ballot selections, and each mobile ballot produces multiple levels of audit trails, including a fully formatted paper ballot for seamless tabulation,” says Sawhney.
Critics also raise concerns about the post-election audits, which Voatz conducted with ShiftState Security in West Virginia and the National Cybersecurity Center in Denver.
Voatz concedes that there's room for improvement.
The company's CEO told Slate that it signed a nondisclosure agreement with the auditors and needed to protect proprietary information about the system. But, Slate reported, “Voatz has promised additional white papers and that future audits will be conducted by third-party firms and will be in the public domain before 2020.”
In the meantime, Utah County, which includes the city of Provo and is the second-most populated county in Utah, will make the app available to nearly 60 overseas voters for this month's local election. The state is already considering a mobile-voting option for statewide and presidential elections.
Still, Cortés doesn’t anticipate voting by phone to go mainstream anytime soon.
“I think most states overall have their hands full on the security front,” he says, “and so are going to be very wary of delving into a space with so many known potential vulnerabilities.”