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Opinion | The case against allowing internet voting in Michigan

The Michigan House is likely to vote soon to expand the use of internet voting, sometimes called electronic ballot return, in future Michigan elections. It might sound like a great way to expand voter access, but internet voting is extremely risky. Election experts deeply familiar with the many aspects of election security expressed significant concerns when the House introduced this legislation. 

Carl Landwehr and Aquene Freechild

Carl Landwehr is a visiting professor of electrical and computing engineering at the University of Michigan, a Fellow of the The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and a member of the National Cyber Security Hall of Fame. Aquene Freechild co-directs the Democracy Campaign for the nonpartisan nonprofit Public Citizen.

Michigan House Bill 4210 would permit spouses and dependents of overseas military voters to vote electronically, even if they have reliable mail-in voting options. While we are deeply committed to providing accessible voting options for voters abroad and for voters with disabilities, we want to be sure the counted ballots reflect those voters’ intentions and can be audited.

The internet is safe for Michigan residents to register to vote or request a mail-in ballot, which can be returned to election offices either in-person, via a drop-box, or by mail. But returning a completed ballot over the internet could compromise voting rights of users or even compromise entire elections. 

Experts say there is no way for the voter to be sure the vote tabulated at the election office correctly reflects the voter’s intent if the ballot is received electronically. Malware on a voter’s phone or laptop can intercept, manipulate and forward an altered vote to the election office. 

In today’s world, where a user’s device is shared by many complex applications, it is extremely difficult to assure the absence of such manipulations.

The most concerning problem with internet voting is that it cannot guarantee that a submitted ballot represents the actual choices made by a voter. If the choice made by a voter is maliciously altered, there is no paper record of the voter’s actual choice that the voter (or an auditor) can review. Printing a paper copy of an electronically received ballot does not solve this problem. A recount or audit can't verify if the vote received by the election office was what the voter intended.

Increasing our election system’s vulnerability to hacking and malware undermines confidence in our elections and can compromise privacy and transparency. While an individual’s voting record and whether or not they have voted is public, their individual choices must remain private information to prevent vote buying or coercion. 

Internet voting can threaten this crucial element of voters’ rights in a democracy. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all noted major flaws with internet voting and have said such systems are not ready for use. 

Consider what happened in 2010, when the District of Columbia created an internet voting pilot program, with sample votes, and invited good-faith hackers to find flaws in the system. Within hours University of Michigan professor Alex Halderman and his students were able to access and change every sample ballot, access server cameras and log-in information, change the log out screen to play the University’s fight song, and more. It took the district two days to notice the changes. 

What’s more, just last year, Australia’s state of New South Wales discontinued its electronic iVote program serving overseas voters after crashes left 30,000 voters calling for help on election day. The state had to sue winning candidates and run a whole new half million-dollar election because they won by fewer votes than had been suppressed by the system outage.

Michigan has already taken substantial steps to expand voter accessibility in recent years with the adoption of Proposition 2, which streamlines the process for requesting absentee ballots, requires nine days of early in-person voting, guarantees that voters serving in the military will have their ballot counted if postmarked by Election Day and more. 

If the House would like to further expand voting access, it should instead focus on passing the Michigan Voting Rights Act as well as implementing a system to bring accessible voting options upon request to nursing homes/assisted living facilities, hospitals and homes of people with disabilities who cannot easily handle paper. 

Michigan elections must remain free, fair, and accountable. HB4210 will not help. 

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