Apr 21, 2020

Elections 2020: Pandemic may accelerate online voting solutions

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But paper is still key to verification and validation.

A handful of states are considering using mobile voting in their upcoming primary elections. Currently, there’s no nationwide, trustworthy technology for voting remotely. But with COVID-19 still likely to be a problem in November, officials are thinking about how to get people voting without putting them at risk. Experts say any mobile voting solution must include paper audit trails. Otherwise it simply isn’t secure.  

I spoke with Michael Alvarez, professor of political and computational social science at Caltech. He’s also co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. I asked him how mobile voting is better than just voting by mail. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Michael Alvarez. (Photo courtesy of Alvarez)

Michael Alvarez: Coming this fall, the obvious thing is going to be that people are going to get their ballots by mail. In many places, like here in California, voters will have the option to use what we call remote-access voting by mail, where they can obtain their ballot and mark it up and return it back to the election official. Even here in Los Angeles County, there’s a technology that’s available that’s called the interactive sample ballot. Voters will be able to use that to mark their ballot in advance and take their device, their phone, iPad, whatever device they’ve used to mark the ballot — to a vote center where they can scan a QR code. They can actually get a printed, marked version of their ballot, which they check and then scan and have it dropped into the ballot box. There are going to be a lot of different technological options that voters may have to do remote voting.

Molly Wood: Tell me, how is that one remote? It sounds to me like that’s a technological solution, but one that still involves a person going to a ballot box, right?

Alvarez: It does. The interactive sample ballot is, I think, a good example here. What problem that solves is that that makes the ballot accessible remotely to a voter, it gives them the opportunity to mark their ballot in a way that is going to minimize the chances that they make mistakes. They’re going to be able to do it in a potentially COVID-19-free environment because they can do it at home or they can do it somewhere where they’re marking the ballot in a place where they’re safe. It also generates a paper audit trail so that when they go and they print that ballot out, they have a paper audit trail that they can confirm and they can verify and validate. They can drop it in the ballot box, and then we have a paper recording of the ballot. That’s why it’s a much better solution, although it would involve driving somewhere, for example, to maybe a drive-up location where you would scan your phone, authenticate yourself, check that paper ballot and safely put it back in the scanner so that it can be scanned and then dropped in the ballot box.

Wood: So there’s still some infrastructure required, but it sounds like you’re saying if we were going to implement some kind of technology, this would be among the best-case scenarios?

Alvarez: It’s the best-case scenario because we prefer to see a voter-verified paper audit trail for any ballots that are cast. We want to have a paper trail, paper record of the ballot, that can be audited in case there’s any question about the ballots cast and the ballots tabulated in the election. Many of these other remote voting options, in particular using mobile applications, don’t generate that voter-verified paper audit trail. Therefore, those are solutions that while they exist, and they can be used, they’re just not ones that we’re satisfied with in terms of the security of the technology.

Wood: What benefit, if any, does any tech solution have over voting by mail?

Alvarez: They’re going to be quicker. I’m going to be able to get my ballot, assuming I have a good internet connection and my device is working well. The downside to voting by mail is that I have to rely on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver my ballot to me, and, if I decide to return it, I also have to rely on them to get it back on time. The other thing is that it’s accessible. These technologies can make it easier for many people to mark their ballots because the applications can be programmed for multiple languages, and they can also have other accessibility features. Finally, most importantly, they would use their device and they wouldn’t have to mess around with a piece of paper. The problem is, of course, that the security issues are paramount, and we really want to have as secure an election as we possibly can in November, with the highest degree of integrity.

Wood: It seems like there are also some equity issues there. We’ve even heard the suppression of vote by mail described as voter suppression. Who would get left out, considering access to devices, the digital divide, if we mandated some tech-based solution?

Alvarez: People who would have trouble would be people who would have trouble with accessing broadband internet. Again, people who are on the side of the digital divide, where they have good broadband and they have good, good tools, I think that they would probably have a pretty good voting experience. Of course, there are many people who don’t have access to broadband and who may not have these updated smartphone devices or tablets.

Wood: As we look at implementing some solution nationally, like one of the problems even with voting machines has been that it’s different vendors, it’s up to a different city, locality, county, state. How would we even go about trying to standardize the process?

Alvarez: The good news and the bad news here is that states effectively run elections in the United States. We would probably not ever see a national voting application, just because states run elections and states are free to do their own thing. That creates difficulties, but it also creates the very fertile ground for innovation. The problem that we’ve seen over the last 15 or 20 years since we started studying these voting technology problems at the Voting Technology Project is that this industry is largely broken. There’s simply not a lot of investment in new technology. There’s not been a lot of development of new technology. I think in this election, in November 2020, given the state of the industry, I think largely we’re going to be using voting by mail paper ballots.

Wood: We saw what happened with the Iowa primary app. Certainly, companies are going to be coming along and saying, “I have a system for you, and this system will totally work.” What would you advise state and local election officials when they get these irresistible-sounding pitches?

Alvarez: The state and local election officials typically will only use voting technology that has been certified for use — certified and tested. Many states — and I’m most familiar with California, of course — many states, like California, have very, very rigorous testing and certification procedures. That really makes it difficult for problematic apps and fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants kind of companies that might try to promote the use of particular applications for voting to be able to sell to states and counties technology that doesn’t work. What will be used in the November 2020 election at this point in time is technology that’s already been tested and certified. This process takes a long time. I really don’t think that outside of some emergency declaration that a governor may make to try to use some type of other technology, I don’t really foresee that there’s going to be any new applications that are going to be used in this fall’s election.

Wood: Do you think we’ll see a future, though, where we really do figure this out, whether it’s five years from now, as a result of changes that might be starting today?

Alvarez: It’s just really hard to know and have that crystal ball and look into the future and see where that ultimate killer voting app might come from, and it provides some form of voter-verified paper audit trail. I think that there are at least two things that have to happen for that to occur. One, is that we’re going to need to see some significant investment by the federal government or by states in developing these kinds of applications. Second, I think that there needs to be some motivation for that to happen. In one of these coming elections, if we have a significant crisis, that could motivate the federal government and states to start getting serious about making an investment in improving the technology of democracy in the United States.

Wood: I guess you have, in a glancing blow, articulated a large fear, which is that we may have a patchwork election in November that involves some electronic voting, some voting by mail, some voting in person, and that it may be all too easy to try to discount the results.

Alvarez: Right. This is a high-stakes election, not only in the race for president, but also in many U.S. congressional races, U.S. Senate races and many other races. What we’re all going to need to do is to pay very close  attention to, and scrutinize, the results as they come in so we can try to help provide the security and integrity and confidence that people should have if the election is run well.

Wisconsin residents went to the polls a day after the U.S. Supreme Court voted against an extension of the absentee ballot deadline in the state. Because of the coronavirus, the number of polling places was drastically reduced. (Andy Manis/Getty Images)

Related links: more insight from Molly Wood

Interestingly, even Congress is trying to figure out how to vote remotely so it can get some work done during the pandemic. There have been increasing calls for them to vote at a distance, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters earlier this month that it isn’t happening anytime soon.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
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