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Online voting available, if you have pen and paper

Only about 1 percent of registered voters in the US can cast their ballots electronically. Why? Fear that hackers could undermine online voting.

Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
Expertise E-commerce, Amazon, earned wage access, online marketplaces, direct to consumer, unions, labor and employment, supply chain, cybersecurity, privacy, stalkerware, hacking. Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie Award for a single article in consumer technology
Laura Hautala
5 min read

Overseas and deployed military voters in many states can choose to return their ballots electronically.

David Gould, Getty Images

Katie Arzig can tell you online voting isn't as simple as online shopping.

The 26-year-old student at the University of Liverpool was determined to make her vote count. So she got in touch with the Middlesex County Clerk's office in New Jersey, her home state, looking for someone to explain the process.

Three weeks ago, she played telephone tag with the county clerk. After a round of transatlantic calls, she learned that online voting isn't hard. But it's definitely not easy.

Arzig printed out a 7-page ballot, marked it, scanned it and emailed the PDF to voting authorities in New Jersey. She did the same with a waiver forfeiting her right to a secret ballot. Then she packed all the paper into an envelope, headed to a Royal Mail office and sent it off.

"Filling [the ballot] out was the shortest part," she said this week in a call from Liverpool. The hardest part: getting in touch with the right person at her county clerk's office and finding out about all the steps to get her vote counted, Arzig said.

The US is still working out the challenges of online voting even as countries like Estonia, Canada and Switzerland roll it out to more citizens. Adoption in the US is slow in part because of concerns that hackers could change the results or call their validity into question.

A fragmented voting system -- run by 50 individual state governments -- also puts a drag on change.

All aboard in Alaska

As a result, online voting represents just a tiny slice of all US votes. The District of Columbia and 31 states offer some form of electronic voting, but only one, Alaska, lets all eligible voters use the system. The other states restrict online voting to special cases, such as active military members who are deployed overseas and Americans living abroad.

About 2.6 million Americans -- or about 1 percent of voters -- are eligible to return their ballots by email, web portal or fax machine, according to the Federal Voter Assistance Program.

And though you may have seen something about texting in your vote, you actually can't cast your ballot by text message. Twitter cracked down earlier this week on an account posting misleading ads urging supporters of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to vote by text, a move that may have discouraged them from going to the polls.

A New Jersey Division of Elections spokeswoman confirmed the steps for returning ballots by email. Election officials in several other states, including Alaska and Washington, didn't comment on their electronic ballot return systems.

Hacking is the chief worry. More than 40 states have reached out to the Department of Homeland Security for help securing their election systems. The agency said 20 states discovered evidence that hackers had probed their systems and databases. Arizona found a valid username and password for its voter registration database for sale in a dark corner of the internet.

Even electronic voting machines used around the country have been called into question because cybersecurity experts found hackers could tamper with votes if they got physical access to the machines. But that kind of hack is unlikely to sway a national election, many security experts say.

The fear that someone may tamper with election results was stoked by accusations that Russia stole emails from Democratic Party organizations -- and from Clinton's staff -- and then leaked them to influence the election. Republican nominee Donald Trump saying last month that the results could be rigged hasn't helped build trust, either.

"With all the conversation these days about fairness in voting -- and also transparency and the integrity of the system -- people are inherently concerned about things that are done online," said Neill Feather, who's on the board of directors of the Online Trust Alliance and president of the cybersecurity firm SiteLock. "Understandably so."

One of the biggest complaints against online voting is that it violates a best practice election officials use to protect votes: keeping ballot results offline. In fact, election officials go to great lengths to keep voting machines and systems for tallying votes from ever connecting to the internet, said Pamela Smith, president of watchdog group Verified Voting.

'A little bit of a disconnect'

For people to vote electronically, however, all the information has to travel over the internet, where it could be intercepted or altered. "It's a little bit of a disconnect to turn around and say 'Hey, return your ballots to us online,'" Smith said.

Alaska is the farthest along the technology curve. It lets all eligible voters submit absentee ballots through a web portal. Still, online voting in The Last Frontier isn't simple. The system requires voters to print and scan their ballots, and then have a witness sign a separate document verifying the vote.

To be fair, few countries have figured out how to build secure, streamlined online voting systems.

In Estonia, voters can use an online system that requires two-factor authentication to confirm they are who they say they are. After filling out their ballots, Estonians request a confirmation code that's sent to their phones. Once that code is entered, they can cast their ballot.

Estonia's success with online voting is helped by a robust tech infrastructure -- and a small population of just 1.3 million, about the population of Maine.

In Canada, voters could cast ballots online and over the phone in a 2010 mayoral election in Arnprior, Ontario. But voting had to be extended 24 hours after server failures kept voters locked out.

Still, Canada is moving ahead with voting online. An ongoing advisory vote in Prince Edward Island is taking place over the phone and internet.

In Switzerland, two software systems that enable online voting are being rolled out in several of the country's 26 cantons. The country has been experimenting with online voting systems since the canton of Geneva introduced an online voting system for its 2004 elections.

Arzig, the American abroad, said it was "intimidating" to waive her right to a secret ballot.But she was happy for the chance to cast her ballot on such short notice. And as time consuming as the process was, voting online was better than her fallback: flying home.

"Voting has always been really important to me," Arzig said. "I was looking at flights."