News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by

Why can't Americans vote online yet?

Voters vote early at the Los Angeles County Registrar/Recorder building in Norwalk on Friday, Oct. 17. Early voting will also take place the two weekends leading up to election day on Nov. 4.
Voters vote early at the Los Angeles County Registrar/Recorder building in Norwalk on Friday, Oct. 17. Early voting will also take place the two weekends leading up to election day on Nov. 4.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 2MB

In less than two weeks about 40 percent of Americans, if history is any guide, will cast their vote in the midterm elections. They will drive to their polling place and punch a hole through a card or perhaps mail in an absentee ballot. 

It seems rather antiquated in the iPhone age, which brings up the question, are we any closer to being able to vote online? To help answer that, Take Two spoke with David Dill.

Dill is a professor of computer science at Stanford and founder of Verified Voting, non-partisan non-profit group that advocates for accuracy and transparency of elections.


We do a lot of things online, like banking, that require security. Why not voting?

Surprisingly, it's practically impossible to make online voting secure. There have been many, many reports over the past decade by top computer scientists explaining the difficulty of trying to do that. If you try to bank online you can, if something goes wrong, get a statement at the end and see if your money went to the wrong place. When you vote there's no way to get a voting statement because we've got a secret ballot. If somebody was able to tell you how you voted so you could check whether it was recorded properly, that would be a big, big problem.

Why can't you just get a receipt?

That's the same problem. One of the things we worry about in voting is whether you can prove how you voted to a third party. We don't want people to be able to do that because we don't want them to be able to sell their vote or be coerced, say, fired if they vote the wrong way.

So that's more the problem than the technology?

It's a combination. This is the wrong technology for this particular problem. The thing that's scary about elections is that if votes are changed you can't necessarily tell. If someone rips off your bank account, you at least know that it happened. But with an election you can secretly get the wrong outcome. That undermines the credibility of all election results. And when you think about it, an election you can't believe is virtually useless.

So in that case will we never have online voting?

It's really hard to say. There need to be some breakthroughs. The state of Internet security now is pretty terrible. Every time you open the paper there's this thing where millions of credit card numbers have been stolen or some horrendous backdoor has been found in software that's been used for many years. I wouldn't rule out Internet voting as something that could eventually be done safely but right now we don’t know how to do it and we need to resist efforts to deploy it prematurely.

Some other countries are testing, if not already doing this. Estonia has online voting.

Estonia hasn’t solved the fundamental problems I'm talking about. One of the very biggest ones is viruses on people's computers. We live in a world now where there are millions of computers controlled by third parties, so called bot nets. If somebody can control your computer without you knowing it, they can change your vote when you put it into your computer. Estonia hasn’t fixed that and there's been a recent study of Estonia Internet voting where computer scientists looked at their system and found many security flaws. So I wouldn't use Estonia as an example.

Do you feel there's much movement in the U.S. to lobby for online voting and solve all these big problems you're talking about?

There is a bit of a movement but the problem is the people who haven't really understood the problem very well keep proposing it. It's counterintuitive; we do use the Internet for a lot of things. So people who don’t understand the difference between an election and banking often float the idea of doing Internet voting. There are also companies in the business of selling online voting. So whenever you have companies pressing for something you have lobbying in the background to try to get the government to use it.

If online voting isn’t the answer are there other things we can do to improve the voting system and increase turnout?

Internet voting has been shown, time and time again, to not affect voter turnout. People keep coming up with ideas to make voting more cool for young people such as using electronic voting and Internet voting and the places where it's tried, it really hasn't increased voter turnout.

Why? That also seems counterintuitive.

You really have to find a way to motivate people better. One of the things we can do to improve voter turnout is to improve voter registration. The inconvenience of having to register and sometimes the impossibility of registering does make it difficult for people to vote and that demonstrably reduces voter turnout.

One thing that keeps coming up, oddly, is the link between voter registration and jury duty. A certain number of people don't register to vote because they don't want to be called upon to do jury duty. I think we could separate those two tasks.