The Election Assistance Commission approved a measure to update the guidelines against which manufacturers test electronic voting machines to make sure they are secure and accessible. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

In an age where people can transfer money using their mobile device, it’s not hard to envision a future where citizens wake up on Election Day, pull out their phones and choose the next leader of the free world on the way to work.

Last week, a federal election agency took a small step toward that futuristic vision.

The Election Assistance Commission, a body created in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, approved a measure to update the guidelines against which manufacturers test electronic voting machines to make sure they are secure and accessible.

“The guidelines we have now are so old that the iPhone hadn’t even come out when they were written,” said Christy McCormick, the commission’s chairwoman.

The updated guidelines will allow manufacturers to test machines against modern security and disability standards and get them certified for use by states ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Joseph Kiniry, principal investigator at Galois, has hacked into Internet-based voting systems to show government officials their flaws. (Courtesty of Michelle Rajotte)
A checkered past

When it comes to the act of voting, some experts argue there is little room for experimentation given the high stakes and security concerns involved. Past experiments with Internet-based voting in the District, across the United States and abroad have produced mixed results.

But officials say technology can improve the nuts and bolts of running an election — cutting costs, engaging disenfranchised voters through social media, making registration more convenient and collecting and analyzing data on voter turnout.

A total of 21 states offer some form of online voter registration, including Virginia and Maryland. Both states are also among a handful that allow limited use of “e-poll books,” which are tablet-like devices used to check in voters at polling booths or direct them to the correct voting site using mapping software.

Many states are also testing ways to improve the voting experience ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

The city of Rockville plans a pilot program that uses a combination of paper ballots and new voting equipment at this year’s city council elections. Maryland plans to use the same system next year.

Voters can choose between two slightly different options: Make a selection on a barcoded piece of paper by hand or use a ballot-marking device. The ballot is then scanned by a specially designed scanner to mark and record the vote.

Practicality of paper

Election officials will study how people use the new system to see what improvements can be made, said Lois Neuman, chair of Rockville’s Board of Supervisors of Elections.

The use of paper ballots may seem counterintuitive to the vision of a purely digital voting experience, but many experts argue that it is still the most practical way to meet the unique requirements of an election.

An effective voting mechanism must provide anonymity, the ability to vote independently for voters with disabilities, and a provision to check that the outcome is free from ma­nipu­la­tion. Unlike a financial transaction, anonymity is so critical that voters cannot report errors in their candidate selection as they would fraudulent charges on a credit card.

When it comes to Internet-based voting systems, many experts argue there’s no clear solution to address the issues of security and verifiability.

A securely designed online system also needs to be easy to use, and so far that goal has eluded researchers, said Poorvi Vora, an associate professor of computer science at George Washington University who has researched Internet voting systems.

Vora is part of a group of academics, computer scientists, election officials and activists working on a project led by the Overseas Vote Foundation, an Arlington-based nonprofit, to answer one question: Is it possible to design a system that lets people vote remotely in a secure, accessible, anonymous, convenient and verifiable manner?

The answer so far is no, but the group says it is close to a possible solution and will present its design to the election research community and federal agencies this summer.

As with health records or financial data, online security remains an obstacle.

Exposing the flaws

It is critical to make sure that votes have not been altered while in transit, said Joseph Kiniry, lead technical project manager for the foundation’s effort and a principal investigator at Galois, a Portland, Ore., computer science company involved in the project.

Kiniry, a self-described election activist, has hacked into Internet-based voting systems to show government officials their flaws.

Soon after the 2014 midterm election, Kiniry and a fellow researcher published a paper that demonstrated how to hack into the PDF-based Internet voting system used by the state of Alaska.

Voters there can choose to download and fill out a PDF ballot form and e-mail it back to the election official. This method has also been used in emergency situations such as after Hurricane Sandy in New York.

In a test, though, the researchers hacked into a home wireless router and changed a voter’s selection before the voter’s e-mail reached the official, leaving virtually no trace of their attack. The hack showed the vulnerability of current systems, but whether it would work on a scale large enough to influence an election is up for debate.

Ultimately, election officials and researchers agree that online voting is still a worthy goal, but there are many other ways technology can be used to enhance a fundamental democratic right.