Experts Discuss Challenges of Voting in An Electronic Age

Online voting. Biometrics. Post-election audits. Today, election administrators have many new options to improve the democratic process. But the system is complicated, and security concerns hover over everything.

"I voted" stickers with an American flag
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The use of technology such as online voting and biometrics during an election can streamline and improve the voting process. However, it can also present problems such as raised election security concerns. 

In a recent webinar titled “Technology & Trust: Voting in the Electronic Age,” panelists discussed both the improvements and problems of using these types of voting technologies in future elections. 

Hosted by the Association for Computing Machinery’s U.S. Technology Policy Committee, the event included experts from across the country.

One of the controversial subjects they touched on was online voting. One of the appeals of online voting is making the process more accessible to individuals with disabilities as well as speeding up the process of counting ballots.

But the challenge of online voting is that it could potentially lead to exposure of voters’ information and who they voted for.

“If I buy a book from Amazon, I want Amazon to know who I am and what book I'm buying. However, if I'm going to cast a ballot, I don't want election officials to know what my vote is and who I am,” said Barbara Simons, chair of Verified Voting's board of directors. “So although it may seem like a minor distinction, it’s huge when it comes to making what we do so much more difficult and complicated.”

To address this issue, Edgardo Cortés, adviser to the election security team at the Brennan Center for Justice, said states and the federal government need better frameworks for assessing the security of voting machines and the overall voting process.

Another area of concern is verifying the authenticity of votes.

“I'm concerned about being able to verify the authenticity of the votes,” said Andrew Grosso, a former assistant U.S. attorney. “We have that problem in states that are not using hard copies in order to be able to verify in an audit that the votes are legitimate.

“We need to explain to the people just how votes are counted and let them observe it in real time if necessary so that they know that things that appear to be inappropriate are actually not, and they can have confidence in the final outcome,” he said. 

As for how biometrics comes into play, Grosso said new technology could either replace or improve the slow process of using signatures to verify voters’ identities. This process could include using fingerprints or other physical features to verify the identity of voters.

Technology could help by making the voting process more transparent to the public. Simons pointed to tools such as “Verifier,” a map that shows what type of voting technology is being used throughout the country, as a possible solution. The map gives users information — which they can see for different election years — about the types of voting machines in use at the state and county level, as well as electronic poll books.

In addition to vote verification, according to Simons, statistics can be used to double check the information coming from ballot scanners to identify any problems.

As for other election security efforts, one of the panelists pointed to implementing proactive laws in addition to using biometric technology to verify voters’ identities. 

“I think we need to have state laws that are proactive in anticipating that we're going to have crises so that we don't have the court system, coming in at the last minute or even after the election, trying to allow the purpose of an election to be fulfilled,” Grosso said. “The federal government can't tell a state how to conduct an election, but it can produce model laws that the rest of the states can use.”

Katya Maruri is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in global strategic communications from Florida International University, and more than five years of experience in the print and digital news industry.