Washington State Officials Question Mobile Voting Plans

A King County, Wash., plan, which went into effect earlier this week, allows voters to cast ballots through a touchscreen device in the race for King Conservation District Board of Supervisors.

by David Gutman, The Seattle Times / January 23, 2020
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(TNS) — Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman expressed concerns Wednesday with newly announced plans to allow voters in one obscure King County election to vote online through mobile devices.

The plan, which went into effect Wednesday, allows voters to cast ballots through a touch-screen device in the race for King Conservation District Board of Supervisors. That election, which is held annually for a volunteer position on a board with no regulatory power, has traditionally drawn voter turnout of only about 1%.

Because of a quirk in state law, the conservation district has to hold its elections in the first three months of the year, so voting can’t piggyback on the primary or general election ballots in August or November. And, sending out paper ballots to all 1.2 million eligible voters in the district would eat up about a quarter of the small agency’s annual budget.

So, they’re trying voting by mobile device, the first election in the country to offer that technology to every eligible voter.

“Any time you connect a system online, it becomes vulnerable to attack,” said Wyman, a Republican, who oversees most of the state’s elections, but not those of conservation districts. “Cyber experts I have worked with, including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Washington National Guard, overwhelmingly have identified electronic transmission as too risky for voting and could leave voter information and election infrastructure impaired.”

She said she learned the details of the conservation district’s plan earlier this week and will be watching the results closely.

Registered voters will log into an online portal using their name and date of birth to get access to their ballot. Once they’ve voted on their online device, voters will sign their name on the device’s touch-screen and submit their ballot. After the ballot has been submitted, King County Elections downloads and prints a paper ballot, matches the submitted signature with the signature on file and tabulates the votes, county officials said.

King County officials billed mobile-device voting as a way to boost turnout in a historically ignored election, especially for people with disabilities and those in the military or living abroad, and as a possible beta test for future, more widespread adoption of the technology.

King County Executive Dow Constantine stressed that every vote will be transmitted to King County Elections, which will download a paper version of the cast ballot and verify the voter’s signature against the one on file, as is done with all mail-in ballots.

“Mobile voting could very well be the next frontier,” Constantine said. “While other parts of our nation seem to be focused on finding ways to disenfranchise eligible voters and erode democracy, I am proud that King County is yet again at the center of a pioneering new approach.”

And officials involved with the project defended the security of the program. The online portal has been used by jurisdictions across the country to help voters overseas get ballots, although they’ve generally had to then print the ballots out and return them by fax or email.

Bryan Finney, CEO of Democracy Live, a Seattle company that runs the online portal, said the cloud-based system is more secure than email or fax.

But state Rep. Gael Tarleton, a Seattle Democrat running against Wyman for secretary of state, called mobile-device voting an unacceptable risk.

“We just saw the Saudis hack Jeff Bezos,” Tarleton said. “If they can hack Bezos, they can certainly hack the average voter.”

©2020 The Seattle Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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