A new bill would bring mobile voting to D.C. The bill faces skepticism from many security experts, who say that any online voting system could be hacked.
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A new bill would bring mobile voting to D.C.

You can request a ride or send someone money using your phone, and D.C. Councilmember Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) now wants residents to be able to vote with their phones or tablets. newkemall/Flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/159522146@N06/25370880367/ hide caption

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newkemall/Flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/159522146@N06/25370880367/

A new bill in the D.C. Council would allow voters to cast ballots from their phones, tablets, or computers, which proponents say would simplify the voting process and enfranchise residents who are otherwise likely to sit out elections.

The bill was introduced Friday by Councilmember Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) and seven of her colleagues, and follows a push launched late last year by venture capitalist and former political operative Bradley Tusk to make D.C. the first place in the country to formally adopt mobile voting.

"Voting is so fundamental to our civil rights," said Pinto. "And we know that when voter accessibility is improved, voter turnout rates increase, which is why in 2020 we saw the highest voter participation in our history because we mailed every D.C. voter a ballot."

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As written, the bill would require that the D.C. Board of Elections create a secure system to allow any voter to fill out and submit a ballot from their smartphone, tablet, or computer. After being submitted, the elections board would print and count the ballots. The system would also check that a voter is actually eligible to cast a ballot, and authorize regular security audits.

Tusk — a former campaign advisor to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and one-time Uber executive — has been aggressively promoting mobile voting in recent years; last October he invested $10 million to build a secure mobile voting platform. He has also funded mobile-voting pilot programs across seven states — including Washington, West Virginia, and Oregon — largely to support overseas and military voters. But his effort in D.C. would represent the first push to make mobile voting a permanent part of elections for all voters.

Still, the bill could face stiff opposition from experts who say that while online security options are improving, mobile voting would still be susceptible to hacking.

"There is currently no internet technology available that allows for the secure transmission of voted ballots while also maintaining voter privacy and ballot verifiability," wrote Mark Lindeman, an expert on voting security and audits with Verified Voting, a nonpartisan group that focuses on elections and technology, in a recent letter to legislators in Rhode Island considering a bill to allow ballots to be returned over the internet.

Additionally, local critics could point to D.C.'s checkered history with various technological advances. In mid-2020, the elections board quietly killed off its unreliable app that allowed voters to register to vote or change their registration; last month the board unveiled its first web-based option for online voter registration, though plans for another app have been delayed. Earlier this month, DC Health discontinued a new web portal that was supposed to allow residents to get access to their COVID-19 vaccine records after the system sent the wrong personal information to some people.

D.C. is something of a pioneer in proving the vulnerabilities of online voting platforms. In 2010, election officials invited security researchers to try and hack into an internet voting portal for overseas voters before it was fully deployed for use; hackers made quick work of the site, while election officials took two days to discover anything was amiss.

In a press release touting the bill, Pinto says it prioritizes addressing security concerns.

"Mobile voting would build on rapid advancements in cryptography in recent years that would allow voters to verify the system works correctly from end to end by verifying their own ballot, and allow the Board of Elections to protect privacy, anonymity, and integrity of digital ballots," it said. "The bill would require that all personally identifiable data be kept confidential and that, after a ballot has been cast, the voting system destroys any information that could be used to discover a voter's choices, including on the voter's device."

It remains to be seen if the council will get to the bill before the end of the current session at the end of the year, after which any measures not passed into law have to be reintroduced. Lawmakers are already working their way through a number of bills that would make changes to the city's voting system, including one to permanently send all voters ballots in the mail and another that would bring ranked-choice voting to D.C.

Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the committee that oversees the elections board and would decide whether or not to move it forward, did not sign on to Pinto's bill.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

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