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Estonia has online voting. Should the United States?

Should voting be this easy?
Should voting be this easy?
Patrick Lux/Getty Images

Voting is great. But voting can also be a pain. You have to find your polling place and then stand in line, sometimes for hours outside in the cold. Shouldn't there be a better way? What if we could just vote over the internet instead?

This already exists in a few places: Estonia allows people to vote online, as do some parts of Switzerland. So why not America? No more waiting in line. We could read up on candidates and issues while casting ballots. Americans overseas could vote much more easily — as could disabled and elderly voters who have trouble leaving the house. What's not to love?

But there's one big, worrisome drawback: the very real risk of hacking. Computer scientists have warned that Estonia's online-voting system isn't nearly as secure against tampering as it seems. And the problems could be even worse in the United States. Alaska, for one, is currently experimenting with online voting in the 2014 midterms, and some experts have worried about exactly this scenario. Here's a guide to the issue:

How Estonia votes online

Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip trying out the new system of Internet voting in Tallinn as he casts his ballot from his office computer on October 10, 2005. (Raigo Pajula/AFP/Getty Images)

Estonians have been voting online since 2005, and it's proven quite popular. At first, just 2 percent of voters took advantage. But by 2014, that number was up to 31 percent. "The people who use it like it," says Thad Hall, a political scientist at the University of Utah who studies online voting. Surveys have found that voters have high confidence in the system.

Here's how it works: All Estonians are issued a government ID with a scannable chip and a PIN number that gives them a unique online identity. They can then use card readers and authentication software to vote (they can also use their cards to file their taxes or pay library fines). The votes are then encrypted to preserve anonymity.

More recently, Estonians have been able to vote via mobile phones with special SIM cards for authentication. In the 2013 election, this accounted for 9 percent of all online votes.

But what about the risk of hacking?

That said, not everyone's convinced that Estonia's system is as secure as it seems. Earlier this year, a group of a computer scientists at the University of Michigan took a closer look at Estonia's system and found all sorts of opportunities for mischief.

On the plus side, the researchers found that Estonia's system of national ID cards made many types of attacks much, much harder to pull off. But they also described a number of techniques to mess with the system's servers and potentially steal votes or tamper with results. And, while further protections could be added, they noted that "attempting to stop every credible mode of attack would add an unmanageable degree of complexity."

Their conclusions were stark: "There are abundant ways that such an attacker could disrupt the voting process or cast doubt on the legitimacy of results," the researchers noted. "Due to these risks, we recommend that Estonia discontinue use of the I-voting system."

And the risks of hacking could conceivably be higher still in the United States. For one, we don't have national ID cards — and past proposals to implement them have met stiff resistance in Congress. What's more, the United States has a winner-take-all voting system, rather than a proportional representation system like Estonia. That means there's more at stake for the candidates, which could make electoral fraud more tempting.

Indeed, Alaska is grappling with this dilemma right now. The state is experimenting with a new online voting system in which registered Alaska voters can obtain electronic ballots, mark it on their computers, save it as a PDF, and then transmit it back to their county election offices. But according to a recent report in the Intercept, security officials are now warning that Alaska's system is woefully insecure.

Are these fears overblown? One common objection here is that Americans can already file their taxes online. So why should voting be any less safe? But there's a key difference here: If something gets messed up with tax returns, it's relatively straightforward to sit down with the IRS and figure out how to fix it. Voting, by contrast, is meant to be secret — at least in the United States. That makes it much, much harder to audit the results after the fact and make sure no one's vote was tampered with.

Are the benefits of online voting worth it?

People queue to cast their ballots at a polling station in Washington,DC on November 6, 2012. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP)

Hall, for his part, agrees that those security concerns are legitimate. Still, the fact that online voting would make it much easier for many people to cast a ballot makes it an alluring idea.

How big would those benefits be? It'd certainly be nice not to have to stand in line outside. And online voting would make it easier for Americans overseas to vote (including members of the military). It'd also be a massive help to the disabled or elderly who have trouble leaving the house. According to the Census, some 2.3 million Americans didn't vote in 2008 because of an illness or disability.

That said, there's also reason to be skeptical that online voting would make a massive difference in overall turnout. In a 2005 paper, Adam Berensky, a political scientist at MIT, found that measures that make voting more convenient tend to benefit voters who were already motivated to vote. They don't necessarily lure in those who aren't voting currently.

Whatever the pros and cons, Hall agrees that we may not see a massive expansion of online voting anytime soon. Washington DC tried to launch an internet voting pilot project back in 2010, but the same group of computer scientists at the University of Michigan found that this was riddled with flaws and easily hacked. (Among other things, they got the DC voting website to play the Michigan fight song). And surveys suggest that most voters would rather see reforms to the voter registration process first. "Online voting doesn't seem to be their number one priority," Hall says.

Which means that voting lines may be with us for quite some time. Unless, of course, other states want to give Oregon's low-tech vote-by-mail system a try.

Further reading

Guan Yang raises an interesting point here — one reason it's so hard to secure online voting systems is that the votes need to be secret. So it's much harder to verify that an election has actually been tampered with. So, he notes, perhaps one place this could work is in Britain and Singapore — where voting isn't secret.

fun story from 2010 of how a computer scientist quickly hacked into DC's proposed online voting system.

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