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File picture: Pexels

DHS, FBI warn about dangers of online balloting as internet-based voting gains popularity

By Joseph Marks Time of article published May 12, 2020

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Voting systems that rely on theinternet are fast becoming a major conflict zone in the battle to secure the 2020 election against hacking.

The development comes as states are scrambling to revamp their voting procedures to respond to the novel coronavirus pandemic. In some cases that means allowing digital voting to play a more prominent role, despite persistent warnings from experts that it's highly insecure and often unverifiable.

The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the Election Assistance Commission jumped into the fray on Friday, sending guidance to states warning about the major security challenges posed by all voting systems that use the Internet in some way. The guidance covers ballots sent digitally to voters; ballots sent and marked online but printed out and returned by physical mail; and ballots that are received and returned entirely digitally.

The agencies warned about dangers related to all three systems but especially the third, which they say poses "significant security risks." Among those risks: Hackers could change large numbers of votes, block votes from being recorded or undermine ballot secrecy.

Securing the 2020 election presents a set of dramatically different challenges than even just a few months ago when it seemed nearly unthinkable states would willingly expose more of their voting processes to the dangers of hacking and most election security debates focused on ensuring votes would be cast with paper ballots that could be audited after the fact.

The new situation underscores how the coronavirus pandemic has upended every aspect of election security, propelling the 2020 contest into far more dangerous territory.

The move to voting that relies on the internet in some fashion has been limited so far. But that could change.
West Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey have announced plans to pilot app-based voting systems for parts of the electorate in upcoming primaries, including military and overseas voters and voters with disabilities that make voting by mail impractical.

Other states and counties are contemplating systems to allow voters to receive, mark or return their ballots using online systems. But the focus of the debate is mostly on receiving and marking ballots that voters can later mail to officials or drop off in secure lock boxes.

But federal officials fear online balloting could become more attractive as states complete primaries delayed by the pandemic and turn their attention to preparing for the general election.

Those elections will be burdened by a bevy of new costs related to the pandemic but have received only a fraction of the money necessary to implement them from the federal government. It would cost about $2 billion for states to implement all the necessary upgrades to protect voters from both the coronavirus and Russian hacking, according to an estimate by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, but Congress has supplied just $400 million so far.

The letter from DHS and the FBI includes unusually blunt language about the danger of transmitting completed ballots online.
The final version of the letter, however, is less harsh than a draft version obtained by Kim Zetter for the Guardian. That early draft specifically warned that DHS's cybersecurity division "discourages electronic ballot return technologies."

The Wall Street Journal's Dustin Volz, who was first to report on the final version of the letter.

"Following @KimZetter's scoop, I obtained the finalized version of the gov't's risk assessment-sent to states today-warning that internet voting is at high risk of systemic tampering. This one is signed by FBI, EAC and NIST in addition to CISA," Volz tweeted.

Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., co-founder of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus, applauded the letter, saying it's important that states maintain ballot integrity at the same time they ensure people aren't blocked from voting because of the pandemic.

The letter is less critical of allowing people to fill out their ballots on a home computer before printing them out for mailing, though it warns such a system presents moderate risks and could affect the integrity of a single ballot.

A group of computer scientists who wrote to DHS Thursday expressed far more concern about those systems.

They warned about hacks that could destroy the secrecy of the ballot for any voters who used them and urged such ballots be reserved just for people with disabilities that make it impossible to mark ballots by hand. They also want the systems to go offline while the voters are marking their ballots.

The situation is further complicated by President Donald Trump's railing against voting by mail.
Voting by mail is the easiest and likeliest solution for large portions of the population if the coronavirus is still making in-person voting dangerous in November. But Trump has attacked the method, claiming without evidence that it leads to widespread voter fraud.

That's despite the fact Trump voted by mail himself in Florida this year.

The presidential disdain has been echoed by a handful of lawmakers including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. And it could make it harder for some Republican election officials to rely as heavily on mail-in voting as they might in November.

Trump attacked California officials this weekend regarding a special election to replace Rep. Katie Hill, a Democrat. Officials in the district have urged people to vote by mail because of the pandemic but are also maintaining several in-person polling sites.

It was the late decision to add one more in-person site that set Trump off. He claimed without evidence the new location amounted to a "scam" to increase Democratic votes and urged that votes cast there shouldn't count.

"So in California, the Democrats, who fought like crazy to get all mail in only ballots, and succeeded, have just opened a voting booth in the most Democrat area in the State. They are trying to steal another election. It's all rigged out there. These votes must not count. SCAM!," the president tweeted.

Lancaster, where the new polling place is located, "has been trending more Democratic. However, it is not the most Democratic area in California, as Trump suggests," Colby Itkowitz explains.

The decision to add an in-person polling location there was supported by the city's Republican mayor, she notes.

The polling site in Lancaster will be one of 13 in the district, Colby reports, compared with about 1,000 during a normal election.

Trump's tweets raised the ire of several congressional Democrats. Here's Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J.: "Trump's attacks on voting aren't funny because taken to their logical conclusion his endless lies about voter "fraud" threaten the legitimacy of every election and democracy in America."

Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.): "The President who votes by mail ballot says voting by mail is "stealing an election". If it's good enough for him, good enough for Utah and other states that conduct mail-only elections, why isn't it good enough for every eligible American voter? "

The Washington Post

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