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Increased Demands For Online Voting Options Sparks Discussion About Its Vulnerabilities

Jericho Casper

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Screenshot of Carsten Schürmann, professor of information security and trust at the University of Copenhagen, from the webinar

June 17, 2020 — As the world adjusts to the long-running nature of the coronavirus pandemic, people in democracies are increasingly discussing relying on technology to assist in elections.

As many are calling for online voting options to be offered in upcoming elections, the importance of understanding the risks associated with digital voting grows.

In a webinar hosted by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems on Tuesday, panelists discussed the future of online voting, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of the relatively untested technology.

Before utilizing online voting software, it is necessary to be aware of all cybersecurity vulnerabilities associated with the technology, said Thomas Chanussot, cybersecurity expert at IFES.

Even if the digital voting software utilized is free of vulnerabilities, Chanussot explained, the device voters use to access the software may jeopardize their privacy.

The presence of malware on mobile devices is increasing, and mobile devices are the tool most commonly utilized by Americans in accessing the internet.

Malware existing on software or devices could act in a number of ways to increase distrust during election season, doing anything from altering citizens’ votes to jeopardizing their anonymity.

“If there is no digital national mechanism in place, which is the reality for most countries, it will be particularly difficult to establish a trustworthy online voting system,” said Chanussot.

“Successful elections require that public confidence exists,” said Carsten Schürmann, professor at University of Copenhagen. “Every country has different trust assumptions, which are important to consider when planning elections.”

While other countries may consider e-voting dangerous, Estonia views digital elections as the most trustworthy polling model. The country began building a digital identification infrastructure in 1995, and just ten years later became the first nation to hold digital elections.

Schürmann advocated for nations to create individual election solutions based on the needs and norms of their constituencies, as public support for digital elections differs around the globe.

While gaining the public’s support may be difficult, certain groups would significantly benefit from online voting.

“Disability activists have been advocating for online voting for years,” said Virginia Atkinson, senior global inclusion advisor at IFES.

Screenshot of Virginia Atkinson, senior global inclusion advisor at IFES, from the webinar

Disability advocates filed for the ability to vote online in the upcoming election in three states, which have all since agreed to provide the resources necessary for individuals to vote online.

People that planned to skip in-person polling to avoid a resurgence of COVID-19 also stand to benefit from online voting options.

A major drawback of digital voting is that it assumes that all Americans have access to broadband internet and reliable devices. Those impacted by the digital divide must not be overlooked as the country transitions to utilizing more high-tech polling options.

In order to reach the largest amount of the population possible, Atkinson said that “the best solution is for the government to utilize a mixture of all available voting measures in the upcoming election — postal, digital and in-person polling.”

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