“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” former Obama Advisor Rahm Emanuel likes to say. His often-repeated quote simply means that crises present opportunities to affect change, and he’s right. It is easier to pass sweeping legislation when people are paralyzed by fear and demanding action. But the problem is that during times of unrest, governments have displayed a propensity toward enacting well-intentioned, but half-baked, proposals without the proper vetting.
With America in the midst of a pandemic and primary and general elections looming, policymakers are in a bit of a quandary. They want to provide voters every sensible opportunity as practicable to cast their ballots, but they also want to promote social distancing until after the COVID-19 nightmare is over. However, it is difficult to adequately social distance at voting locations. So, legislators from across the country have suggested that states ought to adopt a robust internet voting system.
It’s hard to say what such a system might look like, but it would presumably include either emailing a ballot as an attachment or casting your votes through an online portal. This sounds like the perfect remedy, but like many proposals during uncertain times, internet voting would spectacularly backfire. For now, there are just too many vulnerabilities for this to work, and as such, Georgia ought to resist calls for internet voting.
Given that nearly every American has internet access and an email account, it is understandably tempting to allow voters to submit their ballots online, but the drawbacks are serious. It is more difficult to verify voters’ identities online. Nefarious actors can easily hack individuals’ email accounts or spoof email addresses to submit false ballots. What’s more, email attachments disguised as ballots could be dangerous malware intended to expose private voter records or gain access to election infrastructure and alter ballots on a massive scale.
Similar problems exist even if states were to rely on an online voting portal, rather than email ballots. Voters would presumably need IDs to log into the portal and cast their votes. Yet, these accounts can likewise be hacked, and any voter with access to the portal could theoretically locate a vulnerability and exploit it. This could easily result in large-scale voter fraud – completely changing the course of elections.
These are far from unsubstantiated concerns. Indeed, the Election Assistance Commission looks poised to prohibit voting machines from being connected to the internet. And the venerated National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security both agree that widespread online voting is fraught with dangerous susceptibilities. While some states currently permit certain forms of online voting in specific circumstances, it is used relatively sparingly, and rightfully so, considering the risks. However, Puerto Rico is seriously considering a measure that would permit a much more expansive form on internet voting, and this idea might proliferate unless policymakers act with prudence.
While no voting system is impervious to fraud, some are better than others, but paper ballot voting is the best of the bunch. Consider this: if one person decides to act inappropriately in a state that relies on paper ballots, one vote may become illegitimate, but with an internet voting system, one single individual could invalidate hundreds and even thousands of votes. If people are truly concerned about issues like Russian bots interfering in the election by spreading falsehoods, then imagine if a single individual could hack the voting system and change an election’s result.
Thankfully, Georgia has been taking these threats seriously – even in the face of the coronavirus. After some heated debates, not long ago, the Peach State adopted new voting machines, which use a touch screen and printed ballots to mitigate the risks of fraud. However, the recent pandemic prompted Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to move the Presidential Primary to May, and in an effort to ensure that every active Georgia voter who wants to vote can during this crisis, he’s mailing absentee ballots request forms to each of them.
Georgia’s system and Secretary Raffensperger’s actions present a superior alternative to internet voting, and as such, Raffensperger should stay the course. In fact, if he wants to maintain election integrity, while simultaneously encouraging voter participation, then perhaps policymakers should consider relying much more heavily on absentee paper ballots for every election. While crises often lead to ill-conceived knee-jerk reactions, Georgia has been taking a wiser tried-and-true approach and must continue doing so. In the end, we will all benefit from it.
Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.