By Michaela Hinckley-Gordon
The earliest method of voting in the United States was hand-counted paper ballots. By the 20th century, the overwhelming majority of states used electronic counting devices to count votes. In Bush v. Gore, a case brought to the Supreme Court after the 2000 presidential election, the Court held that “the use of different types of voting equipment with different levels of accuracy within a state violated the Fourteenth Amendment.” The Help America Vote Act of 2002, gave states control of voting technology.
The voting system in the United States continues to face harsh criticism after repeatedly failing to prevent security risks and protect voter’s privacy. After the 2016 election, the Department of Homeland Security notified the Senate Intelligence Committee that hackers targeted “election-related systems in 21 states during the 2016 election cycle.” This year’s Super Tuesday was afflicted by long lines, frustrated voters, and malfunctioning machines. Due to these reoccurring issues, many suggested instituting electronic voting machines or mobile voting apps. However, these technological solutions have also come under harsh criticism for malfunctions, cybersecurity risks, and jeopardizing voters’ privacy. Despite these risks, the COVID-19 pandemic may leave voters no other option.
Long lines of voters in tight spaces, handling of voter ballots, or repeated use of touch screens do not comply with social distancing and quarantine protocols. Some states like Ohio postponed their state primaries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states already have systems in place allowing voters to mail in their votes. However, a few states including West Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, and North Dakota allow “web voting” through electronic apps. The primary app used for mobile voting is Voatz, which has been used in 50 elections since 2016. In February 2020, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (“MIT”) discovered numerous security vulnerabilities in Voatz. One of the major security risks of Voatz found by the MIT researchers was that:
A passive network adversary, like your internet service provider, or someone nearby you if you’re on unencrypted Wi-Fi, could detect which way you voted in some configurations of the election. Worse, more aggressive attackers could potentially detect which way you’re going to vote and then stop the connection based on that alone.
In addition to these security risks, critics object to the use of mobile voting apps because the method does not produce a verified paper record which can be cross-referenced to ensure votes were correctly tallied. Recently, the House Rules Committee Chairman, Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) warned lawmakers of the challenges of an electronic system designed to cast votes remotely. He pointed out potential security threats, as well as possible backlash from opponents of legislation passed through such a system.
Despite warnings, numerous lawmakers advocate for a remote voting system during this pandemic. Almost 70 House Democrats signed a letter requesting a rules change to allow for remote voting. In addition, supporters of mobile voting apps argue that the ease of mobile voting would raise voter turnout and would benefit the elderly, people living in rural communities, and people with disabilities.
Technological innovation has provided answers to many mainstream issues of modern society. However, today people are experiencing something completely new as society continues to be plagued by the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the many things jeopardized by COVID-19 is peoples’ ability to vote. If it is not safe to vote in a public setting, how can the United States protect its citizens’ fundamental right to vote? While a remote electronic voting system through a mobile app sounds ideal, the risks involved threaten to undermine the United States’ democratic system in its entirety. I believe the risks discovered by MIT are serious and show that mobile apps like Voatz are not legitimate, safe solutions to challenges facing voters today.
Student Bio: Michaela Hinckley-Gordon is a second-year law student at Suffolk University Law School and a Staff Member of the Journal of High Technology Law. I received a Bachelor of Arts dual degree in Political Science and Justice Studies from the University of New Hampshire in 2018.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.