Much of the world has come to a standstill in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, now the question is whether democracy will also come to a grinding halt. In response, electoral systems are evaluating whether internet voting, or iVoting, is a viable alternative to traditional in-person polling places.
Several major elections around the world have already been cancelled or postponed, including a Russian referendum, and presidential elections in Ethiopia and Bolivia. It left many wondering about the future of democratic elections and their viability under “social distancing.” However, these elections must take place, otherwise it would lead down a path riddled with constitutional crises and the ever-growing threat of authoritarianism.
“The Chinese Communist Party is employing a propaganda and disinformation blitz . . . [they] appear set to translate their manipulation of the global narrative and provision of medical equipment to countries hit hard by COVID-19 to their concrete benefit,” said David O. Shullman, Senior Advisor at the International Republican Institute. “Deliveries of ventilators, masks, and virus test kits . . . may come packaged with pressure on countries that have been reluctant to adopt China’s terms, or integrate Huawei equipment in their 5G infrastructure.”
Against this backdrop, the question becomes not if elections will take place, but how and when.
The Republic of Korea elections held on April 15, 2020, stands as a prime example that elections can be held in a pandemic without adverse effects on either the population and the transparency of the results. In fact, these legislative elections had the biggest turnout for such elections in almost 30 years, according to CNN International.
The vote was the first nationwide election held in a country with a significant virus outbreak. The country saw a turnout of 66.2 percent. “The world had marveled again at this general election,” Korean President Moon Jae-in said in a statement. “Thank you for giving strength to our government to overcome the crisis.”
South Korea disinfected polling booths, required voters to wear gloves and masks, and placed distancing requirements in the voting queues, according to CNN International. Voters also had their temperature taken at the polls, with anyone with a temperature above 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit being required to vote in a special booth.
While South Korea has shown the viability of in-person elections, electoral institutions, especially in the United States, are evaluating other alternatives, such as increased voting-by-mail and iVoting. However, given the recent questions about foreign intermeddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, there are calls to ensure that the current pandemic will not lead to inquiries regarding the veracity of results.
Florida, for example, is priming for historic voting-by-mail numbers this fall, requesting over $20 million in federal electoral funding. Critics of voting-by-mail have furthered theories that this system would give an advantage to one party over the other. U.S. President Donald J. Trump himself called this scheme “corrupt.” However, FiveThirtyEight recently published research stating that voting-by-mail “doesn’t [sic] provide any clear partisan advantage.” In fact, both parties have enjoyed small but equal increases in turnout over the last 10 years.
Where does that leave iVoting? This scheme refers to systems where people are allowed to vote in a referendum from any device connected to the internet. The OSET Institute claims that for iVoting to be transformative, it must meet five criteria: (1) strong authentication; (2) Digital Enveloping; (3) Sever Integrity; (4) Client Integrity; and (5) end-to-end verifiable ballots. In short, it requires both a large infrastructure to carry it out while ensuring that the system itself is not subject to external manipulation.
“In the computer security business, we worry about worst-case scenarios, and the downside risk of [iVoting] is really bad,” said Doug Jones, a computer science professor and election security expert at the University of Iowa. “If the voter is marking the ballot using a device, it’s an online ballot-marking system, and if the physical ballot is not printed by the voter, it’s online voting.”
Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers recently published a study regarding safety and privacy concerns for iVoting systems. They uncovered security vulnerabilities in a mobile application used during the 2018 midterm elections in West Virginia. Their analysis determined that it included the opportunity for hackers to alter, stop, or expose how an individual user has voted.
The Heritage Foundation also warns against possible cyber-attacks to iVoting systems that would be difficult or impossible to detect and trace. They compare iVoting systems to online banking software, which itself is open to hackers and fraud. While it remains possible to trace and get refunded when fraudulent transactions take place, there is no system in place that would allow for voting certification.
Elections will happen before the pandemic is over. It is therefore up to electoral organizations to ensure that democratic elections are not drowned in a sea of authoritarianism.