Election and Cyber Experts Warn Lawmakers Against Online Voting for Overseas Troops, Citing Security Risks

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Federal post-card applications can be picked up from the voting assistance office at RAF Mildenhall. Airmen can register to vote and request absentee ballots overseas to ensure their voice is heard in elections at home. (Airman 1st Class Joseph Barron/U.S. Air Force photo)

Lawmakers should nix an effort in pending legislation that would pave the way for online voting for military troops stationed in remote areas, dozens of elections security experts told senators in a letter this week.

“We believe that service members deserve the highest standard of safe and verifiable voting,” reads the Oct. 13 letter sent to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee by democracy watchdog and voting rights organizations and more than two dozen individuals with backgrounds in elections and cyber security. “For the foreseeable future, internet voting cannot meet that standard, and places military voters’ votes — and the trustworthiness of elections themselves — at risk.”

They authors labeled moves toward online voting “recklessly premature.”

At issue is language in the House-passed version of the Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act — the must-pass annual bill that sets Pentagon policy and spending priorities — which would instruct the Defense Department to begin planning to provide “end-to-end electronic voting services” to troops deployed in locations with “limited or immature postal service.” End-to-end services would allow voters to check if their ballots had been received and counted. The House passed its version of the bill last month. The Senate has yet to vote on its version.

In their letter, the signees warned that the House language lacks clarity about precisely who or what locations would qualify for such internet voting. More so, it warns that online votes could be vulnerable to hackers.

“Although such a system may aim to enfranchise service members, it can be subverted and used to undermine free and fair elections,” they wrote.

The authors — which include the organizations Common Cause, Protect Democracy, Free Speech For People, Verified Voting and the U.S. Vote Foundation — implored lawmakers to find other solutions to ensure service members overseas can vote. Among them, they suggested automatic voter registration for eligible service members, automatic mailing of ballots to registered troops, improved efforts to track overseas ballots, and extending the deadlines for military ballots to be received in all states.

Last year, the Homeland Security Department and the FBI issued warnings about security problems with online voting after determining the U.S. government does not have the means to ensure the security of online voting. They recommended overseas Americans continue to vote via mailed paper ballots.

Military voting for troops registered in states where they don’t live or who have been stationed overseas has long been a problem. The Federal Voting Assistance Program estimates that thousands of service members routinely fail to receive absentee ballots, including about 90,000 in the 2020 general election.

The experts’ letter comes almost one year after the 2020 U.S. presidential election, whose results have been challenged by former president Donald Trump.

At a time of ongoing complaints about the U.S. elections system, this is not the time to pursue vulnerable online voting, the authors wrote.

“We strongly oppose policies that promote or expand the electronic return of voted ballots because of the serious and unsolved security vulnerabilities,” the authors wrote. “At a time when election security and public confidence of our elections are under attack, increased electronic return of voted ballots, known as internet voting, is not safe or secure, and will undermine confidence and trust in elections.”

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