The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New legislation could bring mobile voting to the District

Experts, however, warn that the technology isn’t ready

Isaiah Benjamin casts a ballot in the primary election in June 2020 in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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New proposed legislation could bring mobile voting to the District, a measure that supporters say would enfranchise more eligible voters throughout the city.

Meanwhile, some experts warn that the type of technology needed to support mobile voting on such a large scale isn’t ready and could further erode the public’s trust in elections. In December, several groups signed a letter to District officials urging them “not to adopt, test or develop internet voting of any kind.”

The measure — which would allow residents to cast votes on their smartphones, laptops or tablets — was introduced Friday by D.C. Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2). It was co-introduced by Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and D.C. Council members Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), Christina Henderson (I-At Large), Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7).

Mobile voting would not replace the traditional ways of casting a ballot, but present another option, Pinto said.

“The bill is really about improving access to voting to make sure we have the most representative democracy that we can,” Pinto said about the Mobile Voting Options for Turnout Equity Amendment Act of 2022, or Mobile Vote Act.

Fewer than 19 percent of registered voters in the District participated in the 2018 primary election, and 46 percent voted in the general election, Pinto said. Turnout improved in 2020 — 28 percent of registered voters cast ballots during the primary and 67 percent voted in the general election — but her office called those rates “remarkably low.”

Nationwide more than 66 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2020 general election, the highest turnout in more than a century.

Still, some are hopeful that providing voters with a way to securely cast ballots via their smartphones will increase those rates. And, Pinto said, it would be safe.

The legislation would establish an auditing system to report security threats and require the District’s Board of Elections to establish a secure system that protects voter data. It would also require personally identifiable information to be kept confidential and destroyed after a ballot is cast.

The measure also outlines a system that would verify a voter’s identity, signature, eligibility and registration to make sure each person gets one ballot. Voters would be able to confirm their votes are recorded correctly and track them to make sure they are received, Pinto said.

The technology exists, Pinto said, and smaller jurisdictions — including counties in Oregon, Washington and West Virginia — have used mobile voting for limited groups, such as overseas military.

The legislation calls on elections officials to adopt a system by Jan. 1, 2024.

The Rev. H. Lionel Edmonds, the senior pastor at Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, has thrown his support behind the bill, saying, “It will make voting more accessible for all D.C. residents.”

It could also simplify the process for certain voters, including those with limited English proficiency, disabilities or unreliable access to transit, supporters say.

The mobile process would allow people in the blind community to “maintain that independence that we all want,” said Tajuan Farmer, legislative chair for the National Federation of the Blind of D.C. Residents could cast their ballots without worrying if a voting location will be accessible or if the screen-reading features on the voting machines will work.

“When I pick up my phone, which is an iPhone, it has built-in software fresh out of the box,” Farmer said. If the District unveils a mobile voting app designed with people with low vision in mind, “these things will be right there at hand in your home.”

Akosua Ali, president of the District’s branch of the NAACP, added that voting is difficult for some workers of color.

“We know that many front-line workers have jobs that require people to be available during core business hours,” Ali said. “They have limited availability to take off during the day to cast their vote. So being able to make voting more accessible will only benefit the democratic process by ensuring that more voters vote.”

But, Ali added, security and privacy should not be sacrificed for convenience.

“Our support for mobile voting is based on it being a secure process and that IT security protocols are adhered to — and only under those conditions,” Ali said.

Pinto said election officials have learned from the failures of the Vote4DC app, a now-shuttered mobile program that was designed for voters to register or update their personal information. The app had a high failure rate, and users experienced technical problems. The city has since launched a voter registration website.

But functionality is just one concern. Voting security experts also worry about privacy and security threats. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded in 2018 the Internet should not be used for transmitting votes.

“The appeal is obvious. We all can agree that if there’s a safe way to make it as easy as possible for eligible voters to vote, we should do it. People very much want mobile voting to be that,” said Mark Lindeman, a director at Verified Voting, which focuses on election technology. “But we haven’t figured out a way to do it safely and verifiably.”

Part of the problem stems from the way the Internet was created, Lindeman said.

“The Internet still is, foundationally, what is was built to be by academics going back to the 1970s, and academics weren’t really thinking of building a system that was private and secure,” Lindeman said. Their priority, instead, was sharing information as quickly as possible.

During an age in which millions of Americans bank and shop online, casting votes on the Internet may seem safe enough for some. But J. Alex Halderman, a University of Michigan professor and electronic voting expert, said standards for voting should be higher.

“In banking, a certain amount of fraud is just accepted as the cost of doing business. But that’s just not how we view elections. We want there to be no fraud in elections,” Halderman said. “Frankly, it’s phenomenally retrograde to consider Internet voting in the present moment because we know sophisticated attackers have our election systems in their sights.”

In 2010, Halderman and a team of students hacked a system the District introduced to allow overseas voters to fill out ballots on their computers. The city held a mock election to test the system’s security and invited people to hack it. It took 48 hours to break into the system, change votes and rig it to play the University of Michigan fight song, Halderman said.

Since then, the advances in computer security have been small, Halderman added. “We’re still a long way from being able to provide a level of assurance that the public expects.”

But Pinto is optimistic, especially because the technologies that exist have been tried and tested throughout the country. She said her office has contacted some of those jurisdictions and the West Virginia secretary of state’s office to consider the best practices around safety and security.

“I think we are ready to implement this citywide and the Board of Elections will be able to work with various technologies that already have been or will be developed through the course of this process,” Pinto said. “We have such an engaged electorate here in D.C., and it’s very important that we enfranchise all eligible voters.”

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