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Some States Dabble In Online Voting, Weighing Pandemic Against Cybersecurity Concerns

Early adopters say methods are secure, easy and can lessen public-health risks. Some States Dabble in Online Voting, Weighing Pandemic Against Cybersecurity Concerns

A few states are allowing some voters to cast ballots over the internet in coming elections, overriding concerns from cybersecurity experts about tampering or technical glitches as election officials grapple with voting amid the coronavirus pandemic.

At least three states—Delaware, New Jersey and West Virginia—will allow small slices of their electorates to use an online voting tool in presidential primaries or local elections.

Those eligible chiefly include voters who are overseas, in the military, or sick or disabled. Particularly for those overseas and in the military, they would ordinarily vote by mail but that option could be hindered by the pandemic’s disruptions to postal services.

At least two of these states looked into the option before the pandemic, and supporters say their efforts could promote wider adoption of online voting, particularly as states grapple with containing the pandemic.

The move, if limited, shows how the pandemic is forcing some election officials to weigh protecting public safety along with cybersecurity in ways that seemed far-fetched a few months ago.

With the new coronavirus expected to present a public health threat for months, many states are already expanding vote-by-mail balloting.

Pandemic-related disruptions to international mail may fuel still more interest in online options for voters overseas, election officials said.

Heading into the 2020 voting season, election officials saw cybersecurity as their chief challenge—a view reinforced after the Iowa Democratic caucuses were botched by a faulty vote-tallying app. Experts say those concerns still apply, and U.S. security and intelligence agencies continue to warn that Russia and others are likely to interfere in the presidential election.

When it comes to internet voting, “there are a number of really hard problems,” said Dan Wallach, a computer-science professor at Rice University. Those include, he said, the difficulty of protecting voters’ personal devices and the importance of keeping ballots secret.

Election officials in the three states said that their use of voting by internet is carefully considered, weighing cybersecurity with the need to help certain groups of people vote.

“Anytime you use an online application for banking, government services, health care or even voting, there is a security concern. But we believe that the risk is small compared to disenfranchising voters,” West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner said.

West Virginia is allowing disabled and overseas voters to vote in the June primary via an internet-voting option that was announced before the pandemic but that officials said has since become more critical.

All three states are using a cloud-based system from Seattle-based election-technology firm Democracy Live Inc.

Delaware will allow the electronic option for voters who are overseas, sick or disabled voters for its June presidential primary. It had been considering the option before the pandemic, said Anthony Albence, the state election commissioner.

New Jersey’s disabled voters will also have the cloud-based option in May 12 local elections, which are exclusively vote-by-mail because of the pandemic, said New Jersey Division of Elections spokeswoman Alicia D’Alessandro.

Bryan Finney, Democracy Live’s founder and chief executive officer, said that the system has been tested repeatedly by security researchers, including in a pilot program for a local election in the Seattle area earlier this year, and that the company is pursuing additional security reviews.

Using Democracy Live’s system, voters access a portal to retrieve a ballot. They can submit the ballot through a cloud-based system—where election authorities can retrieve it—or print it and return it by mail or at a drop-off site.

Mr. Finney said he doesn’t use the term “online voting,” calling his product a document-storage solution. “The online-voting thing is such a hot rail,” he said. “It can actually do more damage when you start using that loaded terminology.”

Security experts including Rice’s Mr. Wallach dismissed that reasoning because the process uses an online portal.

“The idea that their system isn’t an internet voting system is laughable,” said Joe Kiniry, an election-security expert and principal scientist at technology firm Galois.

Delaware’s Mr. Albence defended the system, saying it is secure and that when ballots are downloaded by election officials a paper version is generated.

Election officials said the vote-by-mail option has downsides, such as mailing delays or international service stoppages caused by the pandemic that could make limited internet voting more attractive to some states.

Disruptions to international mail are “an evolving picture that we’re trying to stay ahead of,” said David Beirne, director of the Defense Department’s Federal Voting Assistance Program, which helps military voters and Americans living overseas cast ballots. Some foreign postal administrations aren’t currently accepting any international mail from any country, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service said.

Approximately 20 states require overseas voters to use physical mail to submit ballots, while the rest allow fax or email—which cybersecurity experts say also poses concerns. Mr. Beirne said overseas voters from mail-only states should act early and suggested using mail services offered at embassies or consulates.

At this point, internet-voting efforts are expected to affect only a fraction of voters. In the 2018 midterm election, for instance, only 144 military and overseas voters from West Virginia used a different mobile-voting option in a pilot program.

Supporters of mobile voting believe the small pilots are a step toward wider adoption and that it will eventually increase voter turnout. “We just have to keep proving it in different places and different ways,” said Bradley Tusk, the venture-capitalist founder of Tusk Philanthropies, which has provided funding for several pilot projects, including the one in Seattle.

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