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Political Leaders Consider New Bipartisan Push For Online Voting

Online voting is emerging as a near-term solution for state political parties to continue party-run 2020 contests in response to the pandemic, a notable contrast with efforts in government-run elections to expand absentee voting.

Democrats in Minnesota, Colorado, Virginia, and Massachusetts and Republicans in Utah have either adopted policies that allow online voting following the outbreak or have been working with consultants to run online elections in the coming weeks.

These elections are not government-run primaries where all voters who turn out cast secret ballots. Rather, they are the next steps in presidential nominating contests, elections to party leadership posts, resolutions and other business.

“Last night, an emergency meeting of the Minnesota DFL [Democratic Farmer Labor] Party Executive Committee made the decision to move local convention activities away from in-person meetings and tele-conventions, and instead conduct party business via an online balloting system,” a March 17 statement by the Minnesota DFL said.

Colorado Democratic “Governor [Jared] Polis signed an executive order and House Bill… [that] allows delegates to vote by email, mail, telephone or app,” a March 17 press release said. The bill also “allows an individual who is physically present to carry up to five proxies [for voters not present], and allows the [state] party to reduce the number of participants required for quorum.”

The Democratic Party of Virginia was studying options that included electronic voting for its upcoming contests, said Virginia-based attorney Frank Leone, who also sits on the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, the panel that oversees its presidential nominating contests.

“I don’t think anyone, in the next month or two months, is planning on doing it [participating] in person,” he said. “We’ve got caucuses in April that we are not going to do, although I think we have some ways around it. We have district conventions in May. We are thinking of doing those remotely and then various ways to address the state convention.”

“I think everybody is trying to figure out ways to do this without having more than 10 people in a room,” he said.

Democrats in Massachusetts and Republicans in Utah were considering using a smartphone-based app, developed by Voatz (which Massachusetts has previously used). While longtime opponents of online voting have criticized the Voatz app as untrustworthy, a half-dozen state parties — mostly Republican — may soon use it, a company executive said without naming all of the states.

An unexpected return

The emergence of online voting options in party contests would raise eyebrows in election policy circles under more normal circumstances, as opponents have been wary of any use of this technology that could validate it for state-run elections.

For example, a pressure campaign has been unfolding in Puerto Rico, where a bill awaiting the governor’s signature would phase in internet voting as a part of a response to recently destructive hurricanes. Opponents are urging a veto.

“Anyone in the world, including foreign nation states, criminal organizations, or our domestic partisans, can attack any Internet voting system, attempt to change votes, violate privacy, or disrupt the election—possibly in a completely undetectable way,” a March 19 letter from Verified Voting, a national advocacy group, to Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced, said. Three-dozen academics, computer scientists, security experts and voting rights activists co-signed the letter.

Government-run elections are not the same as party contests. State-run elections are more regulated, including requiring state or federal certification of the voting systems. Party contests are less so and may not even require secret ballots. They share features with elections for other non-governmental entities, such as labor unions, corporate shareholders or even the Academy Awards.

But party-run contests are in a gray zone between private and public elections because their outcomes affect candidates and government. Thus, developers of new voting technologies have seen party contests as valuable proving grounds.

That strategy backfired in the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential caucuses in Iowa and Nevada, when new digital apps and counting systems did not perform as pledged, delaying the results — followed by questions from some candidates about the reported outcomes’ accuracy.

Before emergencies like the pandemic and Puerto Rico hurricanes, online voting opponents had kept the option out of most government elections. A few exceptions involved trials where a few hundred people — mostly overseas troops and civilians — voted. As a result, Puerto Rico’s legislation has alarmed critics.

Among the signatories to the letter lobbying Gov. Vázquez Garced to veto Senate Bill 1314 were some of the experts who advised the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee in 2019 before the RBC reversed course on requiring its 2020 caucus states to offer a remote participation option (which meant voting online or by cell phone). While virtual voting via phones did not happen, Iowa and Nevada had other problems.

Thus, it is somewhat ironic that a number of state Democratic parties are looking to online voting to continue their 2020 contests, even if these exercises do not involve voting by the general public. However, given the pandemic’s challenges, the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee would not be scrutinizing the shift to online voting options as it might otherwise do, said James Roosevelt Jr., RBC co-chair.

“As long as it deals with how they will conduct their state convention, it is unlikely that we will look at it,” he said. “To the extent that it deals with the selection of national convention delegates, we might well look at it. Frankly, I think there is likely to be less scrutiny on our part under this state of national emergency than there would have been in normal times.”

The shift to online voting in the nominating process’s next stages — county or state conventions — raises the prospect that some of the voting systems deployed could also be used as a partial replacement for the Democratic National Convention, which is slated for July 13-16 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Roosevelt also said that the DNC was still planning to hold its national convention in July. (The convention was timed to not conflict with the 2020 Olympics, which have not yet been postponed, but countries are saying they won’t send any athletes.)

As some states have moved their presidential primaries to June, Roosevelt said the RBC would review potential delegate allocation changes that possibly could affect the total number needed to nominate a presidential candidate. But the big picture, he said, was that state parties were not “postponing or canceling conventions.”

The RBC co-chair said that he favored any solution that increased access and participation in 2020’s party-run contests and primaries.

Primaries also changing

In response to the pandemic, state officials and election policy experts have been pushing a shift to voting by mail for 2020’s remaining elections. While executing that shift on a national level is a formidable task, Frank Leone said that some blue states were acting quickly to try to increase access in upcoming spring primaries.

In Virginia and New York, where an “excuse” is now needed to get an absentee ballot, state election boards have decided that voters could check a box on an application citing “an illness” — the coronavirus — to get a ballot, he said.

But in purple and red-run states, there are brewing fights over near-term voting options and rules. The Wisconsin Democratic Party and DNC filed an emergency suit on March 18 and won a court order to lift barriers to online voter registration before its April 7 primary. But the Texas Democratic Party has not convinced statewide officials to expand early voting for its May 26 primary runoffs.

The pandemic is changing the way that America votes. But whether online voting will be expanded beyond party contests is an open question. Computer scientists who oppose online voting, including those who signed the letter urging a Puerto Rico veto, said that they expected it to arise in discussions about the pandemic.

“I would suspect the situation is this: Governors and their staff have N+1 things that are critical right now. Someone says, ‘Well, we could just take the election online, and that would solve one of the critical issues,'” Duncan Buell, University of South Carolina Computer Science and Engineering Department chair, said via email. “Thus, a decision would be made to do what seems easy at the time.”

“In this time of pandemic, it is to be expected that the issue will arise many times,” concurred David Jefferson, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who has studied voting for decades. “I think/hope that election officials are so busy with preparing for a huge surge in mail-in voting that they will not want to take on the additional burden and risk of learning about and fielding online voting.”

Buell and Jefferson said that there were dividing lines when considering online voting’s use. They emphasized that voting for presidential delegates at a national convention — or even Congress voting remotely — was not the same circumstance as all of an election district’s voters casting secret ballots.

“It is not just nonsecrecy that allows online voting,” Jefferson added. “It should actually be public who voted and for what. Only that way can all voters verify that their ballots were correctly cast, and everyone can verify that only eligible voters are listed as having voted — and at most [voting] once, and everyone can verify the outcome.”

And any online system also has cybersecurity risks, he said, where meddlers could seek to disrupt the process or corrupt the results.

“To prevent other kinds of mischief, it is important to have strong authentication of the voters, e.g., through two-factor authentication such as a password and RSA token,” he said. “And any online voting system is still vulnerable to denial of service attack, so there are still risks.”

Indeed, every voting system has risks. The question has always been: Do the benefits outweigh the liabilities? In an unexpected pandemic, online voting options, once scorned, are being reassessed with that equation.

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a national political reporter focusing on democracy issues. He has reported for nationwide public radio networks, websites, and newspapers and produced talk radio and music podcasts. He has written five books, including profiles of campaigns, voter suppression, voting rights guides, and a WWII survival story currently being made into a film. His latest book is Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (Hot Books, March 2018).

Senior Democrat: ‘No Doubt’ Russia Behind Hacks On U.S. Election Systems

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A senior Democratic lawmaker said Sunday he had “no doubt” that Russia was behind recent hacking attempts targeting state election systems, and urged the Obama administration to publicly blame Moscow for trying to undermine confidence in the Nov. 8 presidential contest.

The remarks from Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the top Democrat on the intelligence committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, come amid heightened concerns among U.S. and state officials about the security of voting machines and databases, and unsubstantiated allegations from Republican candidate Donald Trump that the election could be “rigged.”

“I have no doubt [this is Russia]. And I don’t think the administration has any doubt,” Schiff said during an appearance on ABC’s This Week.

Schiff’s call to name and shame the Kremlin came a week after Trump questioned widely held conclusions made privately by the U.S. intelligence community that Russia is responsible for the hacking activity.

“It could be Russia, but it could also be China,” Trump said during a televised debate with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. “It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”

On Saturday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said hackers have probed the voting systems of many U.S. states but there is no sign that they have manipulated any voting data.

Schiff said he doubted hackers could falsify vote tallies in a way to affect the election outcome. Officials and experts have said the decentralized and outdated nature of U.S. voting technology makes such hacks more unlikely.

But cyber attacks on voter registration systems could “sow discord” on election day, Schiff said. He further added that leaks of doctored emails would be difficult to disprove and could “be election altering.”

The National Security Agency, FBI and DHS all concluded weeks ago that Russian intelligence agencies conducted, directed or coordinated all the major cyberattacks on U.S. political organizations, including the Democratic National Committee, and individuals, a U.S. official who is participating in the investigations said on Sunday.

However, the official said, White House officials have resisted naming the Russians publicly because doing so could result in escalating cyberattacks, and because it is considered impossible to offer public, unclassified proof of the allegation.

Schiff and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate intelligence committee, said last month they had concluded Russian intelligence agencies were “making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election.”

(Reporting by Dustin Volz and John Walcott; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

Pentagon Watchdogs Scrutinize States’ Push Toward Online Voting

By Greg Gordon, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Nevada’s election chief says the state’s much-ballyhooed new system for electronically delivering absentee ballots to troops and other citizens overseas isn’t an “online” voting system, even if it offers those abroad the option of emailing marked ballots to county clerks.

But his boss, Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller, described the system differently in testimony to Congress last year, boasting that it would allow voters abroad “to request, mark and deliver a ballot to their county without the need of a printer or a scanner.”

The office of Pentagon Inspector General Jon Rymer is taking a hard look at systems like Nevada’s to see whether they’re violating a prohibition on the use of Defense Department grant money to create online voting systems, a spokeswoman for Rymer said. The prohibition was spurred by concerns that those systems are vulnerable to hackers.

Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, chairman of a House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel, and the panel’s ranking Democrat, California Rep. Susan Davis, wrote to Rymer last June requesting “a full and thorough investigation” to determine whether they’re designed to return votes electronically.

So far, the inspector general’s office said, Rymer has ordered only an “assessment” of whether grant recipients are skirting the rules — a review not previously disclosed.

At Wilson’s and Davis’ request, the inspector general’s office also is examining how an obscure Pentagon unit, whose task is to facilitate absentee voting overseas, spent $85 million in research funding from 2009 to 2013, Rymer’s office said.

The Pentagon’s Federal Voting Assistance Program gave much of that money in grants to states and counties for voting system upgrades in what has become a race to capitalize on technology that makes it easier for troops stationed overseas to cast their ballots. About 30 states, most of which received grants from the program, have developed some form of online voting.

The problem is that numerous cybersecurity experts warn that votes cast over the Internet, including through email, are vulnerable to vote tampering or even large-scale schemes to rig elections. Another drawback is that they do not create a verifiable paper trail in the event of a recount, as do many state electronic voting systems.

When Hurricane Sandy battered New Jersey eight days before the 2012 election, an emergency order by New Jersey’s secretary of state allowing voters to email or fax their ballots broke a state law barring Internet voting and “made voting severely vulnerable,” a new report by the Constitutional Rights Group at Rutgers University’s law school concluded.

In 2004, Congress stopped Pentagon funding for online voting until the National Institute of Standards and Technology concluded it was secure. The agency has yet to issue an all-clear signal, stating in 2012 that secure Internet voting is not yet feasible.

Some states have seemed to ignore the red light, and the Voting Assistance Program under its former director, Bob Carey, was accused of encouraging them — allegations Carey has denied.

The program said Friday that “there is no directive from Congress that expressly prohibits online voting” until the National Institute of Standards and Technology “signs off,” but that it has “expressly” barred use of grant money for that purpose because of the lack of federal security standards.

Voting system vendors and a number of states easily circumvented its initial prohibition, imposed in 2012, on use of grant money to electronically return marked ballots. It cost nothing to email the ballots or little for states to buy an added feature providing for their electronic return.

After voting integrity groups protested and members of Congress took interest, new leaders of the Voting Assistance Program incorporated tougher language in grants awarded since last year. Applicants now are required to certify that they not use grant money “to develop a system for the electronic return of a marked ballot” nor “use the system components developed with grant funds after the award ends” for casting ballots electronically.

Even so, Miller, a Democrat who is now running for Nevada attorney general, told Congress in November 2013 that his state’s system copies one in Montana and is designed to “facilitate” the online return of a ballot. Developed in-house with a $386,500 Pentagon grant, it uses troops’ encrypted Common Access Cards for security and allows them to use an electronic digital signature to register, obtain and sign absentee ballots, which they can either send via their own email accounts or print and mail to county clerks.

John Sebes, chief technology officer for the California-based Open Source Election Technology Foundation, said that email is “the most convenient and least secure transport mechanism,” and that there are multiple ways for hackers to tamper with the process.

However, Scott Gilles, who runs the Election Division in Miller’s office, said officials of the Voting Assistance Program approved the system and that it is “well within the boundaries of the law as well as the boundaries of the grant.” Program officials said that Nevada’s system is in compliance.

Gilles said the state also allowed emailed ballots under its previous system, and that at least 2,000 absentee voters transmitted their votes via email during the 2012 elections.

He said his office was merely carrying out the wishes of the Nevada legislature, which in 2011 authorized email voting for absentees and in 2013 allowed electronic signatures of affidavits — a necessity for online absentee voting.

However, it was Miller’s office that requested the legislative action. In 2011, Gilles told the legislature: “We foresee expanding the current process and creating a type of portal” for online voting.

“The key step is our office creating this portal where they can receive and send ballots electronically,” he said at the time.

Gilles said no expert has certified that Nevada’s system is secure, but “we haven’t had any problems with it.”

However, it’s unclear whether election officials would know if a hacker had tampered with the results.

Sebes said the biggest vulnerability occurs at the point where electronic documents arrive at an election data center.

Even if there is no mischief, he said, election officials advocating email voting are asking for “a whole new different type of trust.”

“We’re now trusting computer people with the election outcome, and that’s kind of a weird thing to do, at least for most Americans.”

Photo via Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

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