clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why you can’t vote online

It would be way easier, if only it were safer.

Polling Machines Are Prepared For Tuesday's Presidential Election
Electronic scanners are as high-tech as it gets.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images

You can bank online and shop online, but you can’t vote online. After all, transferring thousands of dollars with a click of a button should require more security than ticking a box on an electronic ballot, right?


Online banking works by heavily verifying users’ identities, but, by law, voting in American elections has to be anonymous, which greatly complicates verifying voter identification.

And although shopping online seems to work fine, billions are lost in the U.S. each year from internet credit card scamming. But customers aren’t held financially responsible for fraudulent internet transactions, as banks don’t want to discourage online shoppers.

American elections can’t afford to absorb that kind of risk. Results need to be tallied fast and, most importantly, be absolutely, verifiably correct.

And as more of our lives are ported online, the internet isn’t becoming any more secure. New vulnerabilities are found constantly, like when an attack on internet-connected devices last month caused major websites, like Twitter and the New York Times, to go offline for hours.

In fact, every government electronic voting platform ever used has been hacked.

Estonia has been voting online since 2005, but when an international team of security researchers tasked with monitoring the 2013 Estonian Parliamentary elections audited their e-voting platform, the researchers were able to hack into the system to change and steal votes. The security flaws were so severe that they recommended Estonia discontinue internet voting all together, although that hasn’t happened.

Washington, D.C., tried its hand at internet voting, too. In 2010, the capital district launched a pilot program to bring overseas and absentee voting online for the general election. Before the system went live, the city ran a trial, asking researchers to attempt to break into it.

“Within 48 hours of the system going live, we had gained near-complete control of the election server,” wrote the University of Michigan team who took on the challenge to pry into D.C.’s pilot program. “We successfully changed every vote and revealed almost every secret ballot.”

Anonymity online opens all kinds of doors for noxious and malicious behavior, and there’s still no truly trustworthy way of ensuring the integrity of anonymous voters online. Even blockchain technology, a system that’s supposed to be so verifiably secure that it can handle huge anonymous financial transactions, has suffered its share of security breaches; hundreds of millions of dollars in digital currencies have been stolen.

Five states do currently allow for military and overseas voters to submit their ballots through an online portal: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Missouri and North Dakota. None are swing states.

But until there’s some radical new discovery in computer security, experts across the board say Americans’ best best is to record paper ballots for the foreseeable future. The convenience is just not worth the risk.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.