- While reliable online voting will likely never be a reality for all voters, most states permit voters in the military and those who live overseas to vote remotely.
- In 2020, 32 states will allow some or all overseas and military voters to return their ballots digitally via fax, email, and in a few states, with an online portal.
- Electronic transmission can give military voters serving in remote areas with spotty mail delivery a better chance of having their votes counted, but also raises numerous security concerns.
- One expert told Business Insider that online ballot transmission leaves voters with little option to verify that their choices were counted accurately and also increases the risk of malware attacks on elections officials.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Reliable online voting for everyone will, in all likelihood, never be a reality, experts say. But in 2020, many states give military and overseas voters the option to transmit their absentee ballots online.
Members of the Armed Services and their families, diplomats, and private United States citizens living abroad all have the right to vote absentee in federal elections under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), a law first passed in the 1980s and further expanded with the MOVE Act, which was passed by Congress in 2009.
Voters covered under UOCAVA have the option to request a ballot for every election in a given year, have that ballot mailed to them no later than 45 days before the election, return it without needing to pay postage, and also have access to a Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot that they can fill out if they don’t receive the requested ballot in time.
And while all voters are required to mail their ballots by Election Day, most states also give overseas and military voters additional time for their ballots to arrive and be counted after the general election.
Every state allows overseas and military voters to return their ballots by mail, and the majority also offer the option to do so by some digital means. In 2020, 32 states will permit voters covered under UOCAVA to return their ballots via fax, email, and in a few states, with an online portal, according to the Overseas Vote Foundation.
A few states, like Iowa, Missouri, and Texas, limit electronic return options to military service members deployed in a hostile fire zone or those who are eligible for imminent danger pay.
Many military voters, and especially those deployed in remote locations without reliable access to mail service, face challenges when it comes to accessing the ballot and making sure their vote is counted.
Military voters have routinely voted at much lower levels than the general US electorate as a whole, Axios reported in 2019.
While nearly 50% of the US’ voting-eligible population came out to vote in the 2018 midterm elections — a record for a modern midterm election — just 31% of active-duty military voters cast a ballot that year.
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Military voters are also much more likely to have their absentee ballots rejected than domestic voters who vote by mail. The 2016 Election Administration and Voting Survey conducted by the US Election Assistance Commission found that nationwide, 3% of returned absentee ballots from military and overseas voters were rejected compared to 1% for the domestic electorate.
Of the rejected UOCAVA ballots, nearly half were disqualified for arriving past the state’s deadline and about 16% were rejected for problems with voters’ signatures. Online voting can help mitigate both these problems.
Some states require military and overseas voters to print out, hand-sign, and scan their ballots back to be returned to their election officials in PDF form via email or through an online portal while a select few permit those voters to mark, electronically sign, and return their ballots entirely through the Internet.
Other states, like Hawaii and Louisiana, also offer very limited online ballot return options for domestic voters with disabilities.
Experts caution, however, that while expanding online ballot transmission could result in fewer ballots being rejected for late arrival, it also carries some significant election integrity and cybersecurity flaws.
David Levine, a former elections administrator and an election integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, told Business Insider that online ballot transmission not only requires a voter to essentially forfeit their right to a secret ballot, but often also leaves them with no option to verify that their choices were recorded correctly.
“One of the biggest concerns about online ballot transmission is that a voter isn’t able to validate their choices,” Levine said. “There’s also the concern about election officials being able to validate the voters results and how election officials can verify whether or not anything happens between the point in time when the voter fills out the ballot and then transmits it electronically, and when election officials receive it.”
By contrast, voters who vote by mail or in person with a paper ballot, a ballot marking device, or a direct-recorder electronic voting machine with a paper trail all have the option to ensure their voting choices were recorded correctly.
Levine also noted that in addition to concerns over ballots themselves remaining secure during online transmission, election officials receiving ballots by email leaves them vulnerable to ransomware attacks delivered by phishing emails.
“The dangers of malware, ransomware, and spear phishing are well known,” Levine said. “Most people would never knowingly click on an attachment or a link in an email sent by someone unknown to them, but that’s exactly what many officials are required by law to do every election. That practice can expose election infrastructure to risk, and leave voter secrecy vulnerable.”
In the wake of foreign interference and attempted hacking of state’s voting systems traced back to Russia in 2016, states have reevaluated their online voting options.
West Virginia tested out a blockchain-based mobile voting app for military voters to mark and submit their ballots entirely through their phones for the 2018 elections, but will not offer use of the technology in 2020 after studies from the Department of Homeland Security and MIT outlined outstanding security vulnerabilities with the technology, CoinDesk reported.
Levine said that the consensus among experts so far is that blockchain doesn’t adequately address many of the existing security problems inherent in online voting.
“There are a number of potential vulnerabilities when you talk about internet voting: malware, denial of service attacks, protection and anonymization of results, and having a meaningful voter verified paper record,” he said. “Blockchain has the ability to be helpful from a voter registration standpoint, but when it comes to internet voting itself, it doesn’t deal with and help mitigate those risks.”