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Disability Rights, Elections Security Advocates Discuss Digital Voting

Digital voting is continually being researched to see if there's a way to make it secure for elections.
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Digital voting is continually being researched to see if there's a way to make it secure for elections.

Elections security advocates often push against casting ballots over the internet. But disability rights advocates say it is more accessible than current options. So what are the pros and cons of digital voting?

Voters with disabilities can face many challenges when casting their ballots at the polls. For those with limited mobility, physical obstacles can block their path. And for those who need an accessible voting machine, poll workers may not know how to set that up. Michelle Bishop is with the group National Disability Rights Network. She says there's an obvious solution: digital ballot return.

"It would be a game-changer for many types of voters. It would be a lot more accessible for people with certain types of disabilities, but also just your average voter. If they could just at any point pick up whatever device they have at home or go to a kiosk that's secured but out somewhere publicly and be able to cast that vote—I think it would be a game-changer. I think it would help our turnout numbers," Bishop says.

Long lines at the polls and lack of transportation are problems many voters face and could avoid if they cast their ballots online. But Verified Voting's Florida Director, Dan McCrea, says that method isn't safe.

"It's extremely hard to account for those ballots, to properly secure those ballots to ensure that they haven't been manipulated," McCrea says.

McCrea says part of the problem is that the internet doesn't have the framework to secure digital voting. MIT Computer Science Ph.D. student Michael A. Specter researches cryptography and computer security. He's spent the last few years looking into elections security.

"So, it turns out that electronic return has been an open problem, meaning an unsolved problem in computer security for—I want to say like the 80s, right? It's been a motivation for cryptography research, and we still haven't gotten to the point where we know how to do this well," Specter says.

Specter says that's because many things can go wrong when it comes to digital voting. For instance, malware can be on a voter's computer.

"So it turns out that if you get a piece of malware on your computer, it's kind of like if you're in the matrix, right? It completely controls everything that you see and do. So, if you were to say vote for candidate A, your computer could say, 'congrats you officially voted for candidate A,' but really it cast your ballot for B," Specter says.

Specter says internet service providers or whoever owns a voter's Wi-Fi can also interfere.

"Let's say I'm a bad guy, and I somehow have control over your network, and I know that you generally are living in a neighborhood that votes primarily in one direction. On the day of the election, I can just shut off your internet or cause the service to be delayed or degraded in such a way that you just don't want to vote," Specter says.

Bishop and McCrea came together recently to discuss how accessibility and security issues can be resolved. They agreed digital voting should be studied more before completely throwing it out. In the meantime, McCrea says systems need to be designed with security and accessibility in mind.

"They're not mutually exclusive at all, and they're certainly not mutually exclusive with today's technologies," McCrea says.

He points to an app Los Angeles County developed that allows voters to mark sample ballots on their phone, come to the polls, scan a QR code, review their ballot, then print it out and turn it in. The machine used to print the ballot is also accessible to those with disabilities.

"That system in California is emerging as a real model for how voting system design can be done to solve for this wide variety of things it needs to solve for," McCrea says.

The conversation on digital voting and how to make it secure will likely continue for years to come.

Copyright 2020 WFSU

Robbie Gaffney is a recent graduate from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.