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You can't vote by text or tweet. Don't get fooled

Trolls and hackers have used social media to post fake ads meant to confuse voters into missing out on Election Day. Don't get played.

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Most people can vote only in person or by mail.

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This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET's coverage of the voting in November and its aftermath.

No, you can't vote by text message. Or by tweet. Or, minus a few rare exceptions, over the internet. 

If you didn't know that, now you do. If you did know it, good. Tell your friends.

The reason I'm writing it is that in the past few elections, hackers and online trolls have reportedly tried to disenfranchise voters by offering false voting alternatives like text messaging, to effectively trick people into not actually casting their ballot. 

For the vast majority of people, the only way to vote is by going to the polls or by using a mail-in ballot. The good news is that the word appears to be getting out. More than 100 million people have already cast ballots in early voting.

Fooling people into thinking that some technological wizardry like an app, website or text message will record their vote is just the latest gambit in the centuries-old practice of voter suppression. Though it's less overt than threatening voter safety or straight-out refusing to let someone cast a ballot, it has the same effect. And for people who don't understand the limits of tech, and the limited ways we're using it in our elections, this bit of trickery could lead people to accidentally throw away their chance to have a say.

Election officials and cybersecurity experts have been working overtime to strengthen our voting system against cyberattacks and election meddling. Facebook, Twitter and Google have tightened rules on political ads

But there's still a chance trolls will try to strike at the 2020 US presidential election. In October, federal intelligence and law enforcement officials warned that Iran and Russia had obtained voter registration data. In at least some cases, Iran appeared to use the data to send fake emails to voters in an effort to intimidate them.

"We've been working for years as a community to build resilience in our election infrastructure and today that infrastructure remains resilient," FBI Director Chris Wray said in a statement during a press conference announcing the news. "You should be confident that your vote counts."

But that works only if you actually vote.

Happened before

It makes sense that a scam to trick people into "voting" by text would be so effective. For years, viewers cast millions of votes for their favorite singers on the hit reality show American Idol. And many of those Idol votes were cast via text.

Thankfully, there aren't any concrete examples of significant hoax voting campaigns this year, but it has happened before. Most notably, during the 2016 election some Twitter accounts tried to trick people into texting a number to record their vote. "Avoid the line," the tweet read.

Facebook and Twitter have taken steps to avoid a repeat. Twitter has outright banned political ads, and Facebook will follow suit next week, in the final days before the Nov. 3 Election Day. Twitter is also changing the way it points its users toward tweets their friends have liked or accounts their friends have followed.

On top of that, both companies have said they're preparing for Election Day itself, setting up policies to respond to any urgent issues that might arise on their services.

"Things move at the speed of Twitter on Twitter," said a company spokeswoman. "The work is never done."

Election tech

We may not be able to vote by text or on a website, but in 2018, West Virginia did attempt to allow voting by app. The program, created by a company called Voatz, is designed to help military service members overseas cast their ballot. To use the app, voters must register by taking a photo of their government-issued ID and uploading a selfie video of their face. Facial recognition software then makes sure the person in the video matches the person depicted on the government ID, and listed in voter records. People from 31 countries were able to vote back then using the app.

West Virginia dropped its app plans earlier this year, though, after researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said the Voatz app had "significant security flaws." Voatz responded at the time that all the pilot programs it had participated in had been "conducted safely and securely with no reported issues." 

West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner played down his state's move, attributing it to the government testing different systems. Warner says we need to stop listening to "naysayers" when it comes to app-based voting. "If we can do the census online, if we can do telehealth, if we can do telebanking and so forth, we can certainly solve this," Warner has said. His office didn't respond to a request for comment.

Including the West Virginia pilot in 2018, Voatz said it's been used in 11 government elections across five states and 29 counties. "Perception is key," Voatz CEO Nimit Sawhney said. He added that tests like West Virginia two years ago and this year in Utah County, Utah, help to show that the company's technology can be another option in addition to in-person and by-mail voting.

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Still, many experts aren't convinced voting by app or through a website is a good idea, beyond these small programs designed for disabled people, expats and military service members.

"We're a very long way away from a place to make sure we could use the technology to vote safely," said Sarah Brannon, managing attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project. In their work, Brannon and about 10 other attorneys have focused their efforts on clearing barriers that keep eligible voters from being able to cast ballots by traditional means, particularly by mail.

"This is such an unprecedented year," she said.

If there are large-scale efforts to disrupt the election by tricking people into thinking they can vote by text or by some other method, we may not learn about it until after Election Day.

Researchers at the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University have begun their waves of phone calls around the country to collect data on student voting patterns. The institute monitors more than 10 million students on 1,100 campuses. Director of Impact Adam Gismondi said one thing he'll be looking for is how COVID-19 could upend typically mundane things like where polling places are located.

Voters have already showed up for early polling in record numbers this year, he noted, speaking to potential erosion of trust in anything other than an in-person ballot.

"Public polling shows a real split among the population among who is willing to trust a mail-in ballot," Gismondi said. "We don't have any wide-scale data, but anecdotally, I have seen a movement toward some level of showing up in person for early voting because I think there's concerns about votes being counted properly and votes being thrown out as we get closer to Election Day."