States worried about mail-in ballot access during COVID-19 pandemic consider online voting options

Some states, predicting challenges around expanding paper ballot access in time for the November general election amid the COVID-19 pandemic, are weighing the use of Internet-based voting platforms.

The considerations come as election officials across the country brace for what will likely be a record year of mail-in paper ballot usage amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

ABC News has confirmed that Delaware, New Jersey and West Virginia will permit groups of eligible voters across their states to use online voting platforms for upcoming local elections and presidential primaries as several other states consider wider usage for elections this fall.

The use of online and mobile based voting platforms introduces significant cybersecurity risks, that many election experts warn have the potential to be used by foreign actors looking to influence election outcomes.

Ahead of the 2020 primary season, former senior government officials and private sector executives warned of computerized voting equipment as particularly vulnerable at a House Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Innovation subcommittee hearing in 2019 leading some states to drop plans they may have had in motion.

Still, states that previously dismissed the idea of using such voting platforms because of security threats are now giving it a hard second look in light of concerns that COVID-19 will keep large portions of voters home and away from voting booths this fall.

“For those people that would not otherwise have the opportunity to vote, an electronic voting option is the way to go, said West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, in an April interview on Fox News. “Right now under 20 percent of our military overseas are having the opportunity to get their vote counted—that’s just a broken system. It’s the same thing, even worse for citizens overseas.”

The state of West Virginia believes their new Internet based voting system is secure, giving eligible voters the option to either print, fax or electronically submit their ballots for the state’s upcoming June primary.

Delaware State Election Commissioner Anthony Albence says the state will utilize a new electronic ballot marking and return system for their primary and is confident in the security features.

“We knew that this was something that was needed,” said Albence. “Once the voter has accessed the ballot, the ballot itself is locked and is no longer changeable in anyway. Once we’ve received notification that it’s completed, we go in and look at it.”

A question on whether Internet based voting was accelerated due to COVID-19 to the New Jersey Secretary of State’s office was not immediately returned.

A spokesperson for the National Association of Secretaries of State, which recently issued guidance on administering elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said it doesn’t issue best practices regarding mobile voting, but has been facilitating opportunities for states to learn from each other with regard to varying state voting practices.

“While I understand the temptation, there aren’t silver bullets here,” said Larry Nordern, director of the election reform program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “We’re unfortunately gonna have to do the hard work of making sure that we have alternatives for voters that are secure – that means mail balloting, extra early voting and protective gear for poll workers.”

Though with the country in crisis mode responding to the coronavirus, several states are now turning to their election security funds from the massive stimulus package signed by President Trump to cover unanticipated costs stemming from the virus. And with no sign of election security funds allocated in a future federal stimulus relief package, states will have even less financial resources to adequately prepare for the November elections.

Tusk Philanthropies, founded by investor Bradley Tusk, has been leading an effort to promote mobile voting as a means of further expanding voter access—work that has now been accelerated by the far-reaching impact of COVID-19.

“To me the question is how do you offer mobile voting in a way that is at least as secure as the current system, if not more secure, and vastly more accessible,” said Tusk, a former Illinois deputy governor and former campaign manager for former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

But for states considering expanding their access to mobile voting, the debacle stemming from flaws in an app used during the Iowa Caucus offer a cautionary tale.

The Iowa Democratic Party contracted Shadow Inc. to build an app to record and report caucus night results. But it came under intense scrutiny when the caucus results were delayed after the party found what it described as “inconsistencies” in the reporting of the results due partly to a “coding issue” in the app’s reporting system.

Before opening up mobile voting to larger portions of eligible voters, Tusk philanthropies worked with states to run limited pilot programs with states to test the platform efficacy before expanding it.

West Virginia became the first state to allow citizens overseas and in the military to use a mobile voting app in 2018. The state also passed a bill this year now allowing the use of voting technology for physically disabled voters.

“There were, of course, substantial security requirements that included utilizing federal standards for software development, regular maintenance and security upgrades, in-depth penetration testing, source code auditing and audits of the system’s cloud infrastructure,” according to an online written statement concerning the program from the from West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner’s office. “After surpassing those requirements, the pilot moved forward.”

Voatz, which served as the app vendor for West Virginia’s mobile voting program in 2018 and was the first Internet voting application ever used in a federal election was the subject of a scathing MIT report. It found significant vulnerabilities with the platform that could allow bad intentioned actors “to alter, stop, or expose a user’s vote.”

The state, which has since announced it will no longer use Voatz, will instead use a new web-based platform hosted by Democracy Live for its June primary.

ShiftState, a cyber security firm founded by former FBI officials, has noticed an uptick in interest from states and private sector organizations interested in further vetting app vendors that could eventually help launch mobile voting initiatives.

“We have a track record of realizing that every voting system that we use has its inherent risks and has been exploited or has been flawed.” said Andre McGregor, a former FBI cyber agent. “So I think we just need to put it [mobile voting] onto the same playing field as every other voting channel.”

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