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Why Can't We Vote Online?

A polling place in California.
A polling place in California.

We can bank online and we can shop online. So why can't we vote online?

To answer that question, we first need to agree on what it means, said David Dill, a computer science professor at Stanford and the founder of the Verified Voting Foundation. In other words, what do people mean when they ask: “Why can’t we vote online?”

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

“The reason people want internet voting is because they want the convenience to vote at home or vote on their smartphone,” Dill said.

I have to agree. I want to vote online like I do everything else online. I want to vote anywhere, anytime and on any device.

If that’s the case, Dill said the answer is simple: We can’t vote online because our personal devices are too easy to hack.

“If we had online elections, we would never be able to trust the results of those elections,” Dill said. “These systems are just notoriously insecure.”

If you follow the news, you know that our smartphones and personal computers are constantly getting hacked. While antivirus companies try, no software can stop all viruses. In fact, you might have a virus on your computer right now and not realize it, Dill said.

“Now you can imagine the impact on trying to cast a ballot on such a machine,” Dill said. “The technology does not exist for secure online voting.”

But aren’t there places that have voted online?

Yes, but Dill says they’ve all been hacked.

For example, in 2010, the District of Columbia piloted an internet voting system that was created to allow absentee or overseas voters to cast their ballots online. During the pilot, folks were invited to try and hack the system.

At the University of Michigan, Professor J. Alex Halderman and his students took up the challenge. It took them about 36 hours to change votes. The white hat hackers changed votes and wrote in the names of evil robots and characters from sci-fi movies. The kicker? When people were finished voting, the Michigan fight song came on. As it turns out, D.C. officials hadn’t noticed until a voter called to tell them about the song.

Dill is an unlikely soldier in the war against internet voting. He became interested in electronic voting in 2000 during the Florida recount of the Bush versus Gore election. With the failures of punchcard voting exposed, many counties were turning to electronic touch-screen voting machines.

Dill says he thought it was a good idea but kept hearing conspiracy theories that you can’t audit electronic votes. Dill labeled the notion a “conspiracy” because he was sure it was wrong.

“Being a computer scientist, I thought there must be a way to solve this problem,” Dill said.

As it turned out, there wasn’t a conspiracy. It was true. And here Dill encountered one of the biggest technical hurdles that need to be cleared before we can vote online in the United States. One of the central tenets of our voting system is the secret ballot. Right now, the technology doesn’t exist to track the integrity of anonymous ballots.

“Voting is a uniquely hard problem,” Dill said. “First of all, what do we want from elections? We really want to trust the result.”

That trust means if there’s a dispute, there’s evidence to settle it. And that’s where Dill has come full circle. While he thinks the punch-card voting system used in Florida is defective, Dill thinks the best technology for voting in the U.S. is paper.

“Paper as a technology has attributes that we can’t really reproduce electronically,” Dill said. “If paper ballots are altered, that’s relatively easy to detect. There’s a physical object and you can track the trail of custody.”

Another benefit of paper? People understand how it works. If you see a poll worker disappearing with a box of votes, you know to be suspicious. Paper offers a level of transparency that electronic voting can’t. And Dill said, that trust in paper has been the underpinning of our electoral democracy.