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Feds Warn States That Online Voting Experiments Are 'High-Risk'

Electioneers greet voters outside the Hamilton County Government Center during early voting in Noblesville, Ind. in 2018.
Electioneers greet voters outside the Hamilton County Government Center during early voting in Noblesville, Ind. in 2018.

The federal government is letting states know it considers online voting as a "high-risk" way of running elections even if all recommended security protocols are followed.

It's the latest development in the debate over internet voting, as a handful of stateshave announced they plan to offer it to voters with disabilities this year, while security experts have voiced grave warnings against it.

An eight-page report distributed to states late last week recommends mail-in ballots as a more secure method of voting. It was co-authored by four federal agencies including the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

"We recommend paper ballot return as electronic ballot return technologies are high-risk even with controls in place," says the document, according to a copy obtained by the Wall Street Journal. A source with knowledge of the document confirmed its authenticity to NPR.

West Virginia, Delaware, and New Jersey all have confirmed plans to pilot a system provided by the Seattle-based company Democracy Live in upcoming elections to allow military and overseas voters, as well as some voters with disabilities the option to vote online.

When reached for comment on the new federal guidance, a spokesperson for West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner noted that the state limits the use of the internet ballot return option to people who would otherwise have no other means to return their ballot secretly. This means the service isn't offered to all voters with disabilities, just voters who would not be able to vote a mail-in ballot without another person helping them.

Voters who use the system still have the option to print out the ballot and mail it in if they choose to, although similar pilots have found that the overwhelming majority of voters choose to electronically return their ballots when given the option.

Delaware's state election director declined to comment on the new federal document when reached by NPR, and New Jersey's state election office did not respond to an interview request.

While the new guidance makes clear that federal cybersecurity officials see internet voting as a risky endeavor, the document stops short of saying states should not implement it.

Elections are run at the local level, and the federal government has traditionally shied away from any forceful guidance on exactly how they should be run for fear of creating an unproductive friction with the states.

An earlier version of the document for instance, "discouraged" electronic ballot return technologies because they "have not been demonstrated as capable of being secure from interference at this time," according to a copy obtained by journalist Kim Zetter. But the document distributed to the states did not include that language.

Election security advocates have been raising many of the concerns that the document touches on for years if not decades, including that electronically-transmitted ballots could potentially be manipulated at large scale, whereas fraud in mail balloting allows just for the potential of "localized exploitation."

"In case there was any doubt, internet voting as a solution for the challenges to our election posed by Covid 19 is a really bad idea," tweeted Larry Norden, the director of the Brennan Center's Election Reform Program, after news of the new federal guidance was published Friday in The Guardian.

A 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences put it similarly: "At the present time, the Internet (or any network connected to the Internet) should not be used for the return of marked ballots."
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