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Elections amid coronavirus: How officials aim to keep voters safe

"They voted during the Civil War. We're going to vote."

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Voters in Washington state on March 9 turning in ballots amid the coronavirus outbreak.

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This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET's full coverage of the 2020 elections.

The coronavirus outbreak has put much of the US out of service, shutting down schools, stores and sports events for the foreseeable future. With several crucial primaries coming up in the US presidential race, election officials need to figure out how to get the vote out while handling a public health crisis. 

On Monday, we got a sign of just how fluid the situation is, as Ohio planned to postpone its primary, a day ahead of scheduled voting. Three other states -- Arizona, Florida and Illinois -- are forging ahead with their primaries Tuesday. 

It was just on Friday that election officials for those states issued a group statement saying they planned to keep the primaries going, despite the outbreak. Several of those states are considered battleground states for the presidency.

"They voted during the Civil War. We're going to vote," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a press conference Friday.

That was two days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday urged against gatherings of more than 50 people throughout the next eight weeks.

Then on Monday afternoon, President Donald Trump advised against gatherings of more than 10 people. At around the same time, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced that he planned to postpone the state's primary to June 2

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Controlling the spread of the coronavirus and of COVID-19, the disease that results from it, is reliant on limiting crowd sizes and practicing social distancing, which could be hard to do at polling places. Voting machine manufacturers have told election officials how to best clean machines, but that may not be enough to overcome larger public health concerns.

"We cannot conduct this election tomorrow, the in-person voting for 13 hours tomorrow, and conform to [CDC] guidelines," DeWine said at a press conference.

While primaries in Georgia and Louisiana have been delayed, and other states are looking at alternative procedures, the general election in November cannot be postponed, meaning that election officials will have to find a way to maintain the race amidst a pandemic. 

The alternatives

Lawmakers like Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, have proposed legislation that would require all states to offer voters the option to vote by mail. The emergency mandate would go into effect if 25% of states declared a state emergency related to a public health crisis like COVID-19, the senator said. Oregon, nearly 20 years, became the first state to move to voting entirely by mail

"No voter should have to choose between exercising their constitutional right and putting their health at risk," Wyden said in a statement. "When disaster strikes, the safest route for seniors, individuals with compromised immune systems or other at-risk populations is to provide every voter with a paper ballot they can return by mail or drop-off site. This is a nonpartisan, commonsense solution to the very real threat looming this November."

The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota who suspended her presidential campaign earlier this month.

"Americans are facing unprecedented disruptions to their daily lives, and we need to make sure that in the midst of this pandemic, Americans don't also lose their ability to vote," Klobuchar said in a statement. 

Wyoming, which is supposed to have a caucus on April 4, suspended the in-person vote and is encouraging people to vote by mail instead. 

In Wisconsin, election officials are planning to go on with that state's primary on April 7, but they would prefer people voted remotely. 

"At this point, we are focusing on strongly encouraging everyone to vote absentee by mail in Wisconsin for April 7," a Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman said in an email. 

While states like Wisconsin and Washington have the opportunity to vote by mail, 16 states in the US don't, raising concerns for both public health and voter turnout this election. 

Election officials have already released cleaning guidelines for voting machines, asking poll workers to regularly clean machines, but with warnings about prolonged exposure to disinfectants damaging the touchscreen. 

Another set of cleaning guidelines stated that the voting machines will be cleaned only at the beginning and end of the day -- and that their cleanliness would be mostly reliant on voters using hand sanitizers and washing hands in between. 

On Tuesday, the Elections Assistance Commission announced that it was allowing state officials to use funds intended for voting machine upgrades to pay for disinfecting wipes and cleaning supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic

""Election officials are contingency planners and have been grappling with the tough choices regarding the safety of voters, election workers, and their staff since the threat of this virus emerged," said EAC Chairman Ben Hovland. "We have immense respect for their leadership and the difficult decisions they are making." 

Wisconsin voting officials don't see any election security concerns with mail-in ballots, a method that's considered more secure than online voting

Interest in voting by app

Voting online is a controversial subject among election security experts. Many argue that there are simply too many vulnerabilities in the chain to ensure a safe, tamper-free ballot

Despite the warnings, voting by a mobile app has happened in West Virginia, and web voting is allowed in states such as Arizona, Colorado, Missouri and North Dakota. 

Voatz CEO Nimit Sawhney said that election officials have been reaching out with more interest about using the company's mobile voting app. 

Voatz mobile-phone blockchain voting

Startup Voatz uses blockchain technology to record votes that overseas citizens and military personnel can make with their smartphones.

West Virginia Secretary of State; screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

"We're seeing that the elderly and those with compromised health face a potential life-threatening risk," Sawhney said in an email. "The conversation about voting resilience, especially in this important election year, is paramount to design in the midst of this uncertainty." 

The company didn't clarify which states these voting officials represent, or how serious these conversations have been. 

Voatz has been used in 50 elections since 2016, with more than 80,000 votes cast on the app. The company says it secures votes from cyberattacks using blockchain to encrypt the data. It also says it's open to conversations about offering its software for free during the pandemic, though it's unclear if states' voting system guidelines would allow a massive switch to a new system at the last minute, since they vary by state.

Even if election officials were allowed to adopt Voatz in response to the coronavirus outbreak, the company is still plagued by cybersecurity concerns. On Friday, cybersecurity firm Trail of Bits published a security assessment of Voatz, with granted access to the company's core server and backend software. 

The research confirmed issues raised by MIT researchers about the app. The MIT review, published in February, warned about vulnerabilities that could allow potential attackers to change votes and de-anonymize voters. 

Voatz hired Trail of Bits to conduct a security review last December and found 79 issues with the software -- one-third of which were considered high-severity. Those issues included improper use of cryptographic algorithms, personal information that can be leaked to attackers and insufficient monitoring for potential attacks. 

Trail of Bits said that Voatz addressed some of the concerns raised, but that 34 of the issues have still not been addressed. In a blog post from Friday, Voatz said that it would be publishing more reports on its own security audits. 

"Across our corporate and elections infrastructure, we follow industry best practices, including end-to-end encryption and layered security to provide defense in-depth, and our intention is to continue these practices as we work to help whomever is in need of a safe, alternative method of voting this year," Sawhney said. 

The statement contradicts Trail of Bits' findings, which note that Voatz's ballots don't protect voter identities and are tied to device IDs that are also collected by advertising companies.

Wyden has said he's skeptical of online voting, and he's proposed bans on federal funds being used for that purpose. 

"Just last week a damning audit showed that not only was Voatz dangerously insecure, but the company had lied about previous audits that showed security holes," Wyden said. "Internet voting is the wrong answer to this crisis."

Some primaries will go on, for now

While the coronavirus outbreak has raised concerns about both public health and voter turnout, digital alternatives haven't been a major part of discussions. 

The focus among counties has been to control crowds by either encouraging people to vote by mail -- which is already set up in some states -- or pushing people to vote in intervals. 

"Early voting continues today, and we continue to encourage early voting as a way to limit election polling place traffic," Matt Dietrich, a public information officer for the Illinois State Board of Elections, said Monday. 

The state has had 504,000 early votes cast, and 294,000 mail ballots sent, and expects to set records for early and mail voting in Illinois. 

Rather than hastily introducing a new online voting method, election experts are opting for measured approaches to getting the vote out while keeping people safe from coronavirus. That means improving access for early voting, keeping both voting machines and voters clean, and moving polling locations away from where communities could be affected by the outbreak like retirement homes. 

Those are all local decisions by county officials, who set the guidelines for how elections are run in each region. That means that by the time the primaries arrive in your state, the coronavirus' effect on voter turnout could be significantly different. 

If Wyden and Klobuchar's legislation passes, it would mandate an option to vote by mail across the US, not just in 34 states. 

"Congress needs to act immediately to ensure Americans don't need to choose between their health and their constitutional rights," Wyden said. "My bill with Senator Klobuchar will ensure every American has the chance to vote by mail, and give states the support they need to go ahead with elections in the face of this unprecedented emergency."