As states warm to online voting, experts warn of trouble ahead
As states warm to online voting, experts warn of trouble ahead
By Greg Gordon
McClatchy Washington Bureau April 16, 2015 Updated 4 hours ago
WASHINGTON — A Pentagon official sat before a committee of the Washington State Legislature in January and declared that the U.S. military supported a bill that would allow voters in the state to cast election ballots via email or fax without having to certify their identities.
Military liaison Mark San Souci’s brief testimony was stunning because it directly contradicted the Pentagon’s previously stated position on online voting:
It’s against it.
Along with Congress, the Defense Department has heeded warnings over the past decade from cybersecurity experts that no Internet voting system can effectively block hackers from tampering with election results.
And email and fax transmissions are the most vulnerable of all, according to experts, including officials at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is part of the Commerce Department.
San Souci declined to comment. A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, said the Defense Department “does not advocate for the electronic transmission of any voted ballot, whether it be by fax, email or via the Internet.”
The Washington state legislation is dead for this year. But the episode provides a window into how the voting industry, with an occasional boost from the Pentagon, is succeeding in selling state and local officials on the new technology, despite predictions of likely security breaches.
It’s also put state lawmakers and election officials at odds with their counterparts in the other Washington: the nation’s capital.
Congress has demurred from funding online-voting systems until the National Institute of Standards and Technology sets a security standard, a prospect that seems unlikely in the near term amid the prominent hackings of Sony Corp., Target Corp. and the CIA’s Twitter account
States have wide leeway over what voting systems they use, and Washington is among 29 states that have embraced some form of Internet voting, at least for service members and other Americans living abroad who have a harder time getting ballots.
The Washington State Legislature in 2011 made it possible for all counties to allow voters to submit ballots by fax or as email attachments as long as they also submitted hard copies with sworn signatures attesting to their identities. Similar legislation was introduced this year in Utah and Hawaii.
But the Washington state bill discussed in January would strip out the hard copy requirement. Voters could simply download ballots and email their choices.
Susannah Goodman, director of a voting integrity project for the citizens’ lobby Common Cause, worries that many state officials lack the technical expertise to avoid being manipulated by the vendors.
“I’ve seen the vendors characterize their products as being secure when the most prominent cybersecurity experts in the country will tell you they’re not,” she said. “The state legislators and the election officials are only hearing from one side. . . . That’s putting our democracy at risk.”
For example, election officials in Washington’s Pierce and King counties, which include the Tacoma and Seattle metro areas, offer voters the option of faxing or emailing ballots. They said the process was not online voting – even though emails travel over the Internet.
Vendors of online-voting systems dispute the critics.
Don DeFord, a regional sales director for San Diego-based Everyone Counts, a leading online-voting company, told Washington state lawmakers in January that current policies were forcing voters into fax and email voting, the least secure methods. No one has been able to hack Everyone Counts’ system, he said.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program, a tiny unit in the Pentagon that dispenses tens of millions of grant dollars to states and counties to upgrade their voting systems, tested the Everyone Counts system in 2011, along with those of other vendors, but has refused congressional and state requests to release the results.
Cyber experts shake their heads in disbelief, because the possibilities of hacking or disruption are many. A report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology pointed out that cyber attacks could flood election email servers to block incoming ballots, or infect computers with malicious code that changes ballots.
“Very sophisticated attacks may be able to modify digital ballots prior to emailing them to election officials,” the agency said, calling it “unlikely that election officials would be able to identify ballots that had been modified in transit.”
Democratic former Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who developed a paper absentee-ballot system for overseas voters, said any system “where privacy is violated and the validity of ballots cannot be ascertained is a recipe for disaster,” especially during recounts.
County election officials in Washington downplay the risks.
“I have no known cases or instances of hacking,” Pierce County Elections Manager Michael Rooney said in a telephone interview. “I don’t believe we’re vulnerable to it.”
King County Elections office spokeswoman Kim van Ekstrom said it had “many steps in place to safeguard ballots returned electronically” and that there had been no signs of hacking.
In last November’s election, any threat had to be small. Including absentee ballots from military and overseas voters, only 3,533 people emailed or faxed their ballots, the Washington secretary of state’s office said.
At the January hearing, Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, said she wasn’t sure the state could switch to email and fax voting and still maintain voter confidence “in the heat of a close election.”
Despite the Pentagon’s disavowal of San Souci’s testimony in favor of online voting, such Defense Department endorsements at odds with official policy have happened often enough that the agency’s inspector general, Jon Rymer, conducted an assessment of whether the Pentagon’s Federal Voting Assistance Program had been improperly funding online-voting systems.
The money dispensed by the program can’t be used to buy online-voting systems. Vendors, however, have found ways to sell systems to state and local governments that can foot the bill themselves.
DeFord, of Everyone Counts, told Washington state lawmakers in January that federal grants that prohibit online voting “are running out, and states will be freed up from those guidelines” to buy whatever voting systems they wish.