Electronic Voting Undermines Trust, Election Integrity

Kevin Dietrich

State leaders did their utmost last year to ensure Nevada’s voting laws are among the laxest in the nation.

In addition to codifying a law that guarantees all active, registered voters will receive an unsolicited ballot in the mail and ensures most residents can cast a ballot without identification, the legislature passed a bill that expands electronic voting.

Assembly Bill 121 (2021) allows residents with a disability to register to vote and a registered voter with a disability to request and cast an absent ballot electronically, including by email.

Of course, everyone should have the opportunity to vote and be able to do so in as unencumbered a manner as is realistically possible. But given that all voters – including those who are disabled – will already receive a ballot in the mail, and the criteria for being classified as disabled is fuzzy (simply an individual living in any dwelling who claims to be indefinitely confined), this change is an invitation for bad actors to try and manipulate elections in Nevada.

Interference by hackers – whether real or feared – also puts the confidence of the state’s electoral process in jeopardy. A survey by researchers from a university consortium of Northwestern, Harvard, Northeastern and Rutgers taken a little more than a year ago showed that 38 percent of Americans lacked confidence in the fairness of the 2020 president election.

That more Republicans than Democrats gave that election a no-confidence vote isn’t surprising given that Democrat Joe Biden prevailed. Likewise, many more Democrats expressed concern over voting following Republican Donald Trump’s election in 2016. However, problems inherent in Internet voting are a nonpartisan issue, as disabilities strike Nevadans without regard to party affiliation.

The problem with electronic voting, including voting by email, is that such votes are vulnerable to tampering, according to cybersecurity experts. Even a small amount of Internet voting can put an entire election at risk, according to the California-based Open Source Election Technology Foundation.

“The risk starts with the fact that digitally returned ballots cannot be verified as having been what the voter sent,” the organization stated in 2020. “As a result, what happens when there is a very close election, and the number of Internet ballots exceeds the margin of victory? The election is fundamentally tainted.”

AB 121, sponsored solely by Democrats (four Democratic sponsors and 23 Democratic co-sponsors), states that a registered voter unable to vote in person or return a mail ballot in a timely manner due to illness or disability resulting in the voter being confined to a hospital, sanatorium, dwelling or nursing home, or a voter being suddenly hospitalized, becoming seriously ill or being called away from home, may request to use approved electronic transmission to vote.

AB 121 requires the Nevada secretary of state to allow the Effective Absentee System for Elections to be used to allow an elector with a disability to register to vote, and to allow a registered voter with a disability to apply for and cast an absentee ballot.

However, given other legislative action last year, AB 121 is redundant and unnecessary. Due to AB 321, passed a few days after AB 121, all active, registered voters in Nevada will receive a mail-in ballot. This includes those in nursing homes and sanatoriums, if they’re listed as a voter’s permanent address. In addition, there is already a process for hospitalized voters to request emergency ballots from election officials.

It is quite easy to vote in Nevada: Registered voters need only check their mailbox, or have someone else check it, to access their mail-in ballot. By allowing anyone describing themselves as disabled to vote electronically, it opens the door for hackers to access and alter ballots. It also increases the chances of ballots unretrieved from the mailboxes of those voting electronically to be stolen and sent in fraudulently.

For the extremely small number of voters who suddenly take ill, must be hospitalized or are called away from home prior to an election, it would be more reasonable to allow a trained election worker to deliver paper ballots.

It should be noted that electronic balloting has been in used in Nevada for members of the military and residents living in other countries, through the Uniformed and Overseas Citizen Absentee Voting Act. However, one can understand the difficulty of casting a ballot while on active duty in, say, Afghanistan compared with Nevadans residing in the state who will already have ballots mailed to them.

There are significant concerns regarding online security. Voting systems not connected to the Internet, such as those which involve residents voting in person, are considered safe from hackers. But email voting, obviously done through the Internet, is vulnerable to cyberattacks, according to an October 2018 report titled Email and Internet Voting: The Overlooked Threat to Election Security.

“Because election laws in the U.S. call for secret ballots, there is no mechanism to check a ballot cast online to be sure it was not manipulated,” according to the report, released by several organizations, including the National Election Defense Coalition and the U.S. Technology Policy Committee. “Therefore, online voting is particularly susceptible to undetectable hacking.”

Over the past decade-plus, experts in the private sector, government and military have studied electronic voting, and there has been considerable research showing it is not possible to reliably authenticate voters and securely transmit ballots over the Internet, according to the report.

“The consistent conclusion is unqualified: it is impossible to ensure that votes cast through the internet cannot be cast fraudulently, undetectably manipulated or simply deleted,” the report stated.

In particular, the digital return of ballots creates significant security risks in terms of confidentiality of ballot and voter data, along with the integrity of the ballot once cast, reported the National Institute of Standards and Technology in May 2020.

Electronic voting could also pose an increased risk of identity theft. Nevadans who sign up to vote electronically are required to go online and enter personal information, including their name, date of birth, drivers’ license number and email address. All this could be accessible to a hacker.

It’s unknown how many disabled Nevadans will seek to vote electronically. It will likely be a small percentage of the state’s 1.8 million active, registered voters. But, as past history has shown, elections can be decided by very narrow margins. It makes no sense to engage in practices that risk undermining voter confidence and could potentially alter election outcomes when viable alternatives exist.

Kevin Dietrich

Kevin Dietrich

Kevin Dietrich joined Nevada Policy in 2022.

He has more than 20 years of experience in communications, including serving as the director of communications and marketing for the South Carolina Bankers Association, working as a speechwriter for South Carolina governor Mark Sanford and assisting with internal communications for CVS Caremark.

Kevin graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in Journalism and a minor in History. A fifth-generation Californian, he spent a decade as a journalist, working for newspapers in Florida, New York, New Hampshire and South Carolina.