What you need to know about voting remotely in the 2020 US presidential election

Casting your vote in the middle of the pandemic is far from ideal. But it’s exactly what Americans are getting ready to do on November 3, 2020.

And since the coronavirus complicated the matters of voting in person, voting by mail or online are now taking center stage. Not without controversy or fraud accusations, as you can imagine.

Let’s see what the implications of voting remotely for this presidential election are.

Voting by mail

As the name suggests, postal voting is voting in an election where ballot papers are distributed to electors and returned by post.

One of the biggest opponents of the mail voting system is the current US president, Donald Trump.

This tweet is in line with his alarmist style, but postal ballot fraud cases are sparse and isolated:

      • A 2018 absentee ballot tampering scandal in North Carolina was one of the few notable widespread attempts at election fraud.
      • More than 2,200 ballots were rejected during Michigan’s 2020 primary because the voter hadn’t signed them.
      • In July 2020, a vendor error led to nearly 100,000 voters in Brooklyn, N.Y., receiving security envelopes belonging to someone else.

The experts remain unfazed and stand their ground: in states where voting by mail is widely used, fraud cases are rare. The rate of US voting fraud is between 0.00004% and 0.0009%, according to a 2017 study by the Brennan Center for Justice.

There are provisions in place to prevent people from impersonating voters or stealing ballots. For example, the authorities make sure that ballots come from voters’ registered addresses and require signatures on envelopes.

What’s more, nine states, plus the District of Columbia, will conduct their elections primarily by mail by automatically sending ballots to registered voters.

Another 36 states will allow any voter to request a ballot to vote by mail. Voters need to provide an acceptable excuse to vote by mail in Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas.

Expanding voter participation by ensuring ballot access for all citizens is paramount to protecting democratic values. So, some states are embracing online voting.

Voting online

In June 2020, the states of Delaware, West Virginia, and New Jersey announced they would allow people to vote using OmniBallot.

OmniBallot is a web-based system for blank ballot delivery, ballot marking, and online voting.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, this raises the importance of voting while social distancing, meaning that it should open the door to new secure methods of voting digitally. I have always seen technology as an enabler of democracy, however, we must always approach it with responsibility and accountability. The supervisors of elections and secretaries of state should be immediately looking for safe new innovative solutions that will allow elections to occur in November while protecting the safety of voters and the security of the election.
Joseph Carson, Chief Security Scientist, and Advisory CISO at Thycotic

Researchers at the University of Michigan analyzed OmniBallot’s security by reverse-engineering its client-facing module.

They found that OmniBallot is vulnerable to vote manipulation by malware on the voter’s device and by insiders.

Democracy Live, the company behind Omniballot, also appears to have no privacy policy. This is problematic since it receives sensitive personally identifiable information, like the voter’s identity, ballot selections, and browser fingerprint.

What’s more, normalizing online voting could bring in new threats, like phishing scams. And security researchers already noticed a 37% increase in mobile phishing campaigns globally since the pandemic started.

Malicious parties phishing voters is not an out-of-this-world scenario. They could obtain personally identifiable information, use language to appeal to an area’s political climate, and, at least in theory, manipulate voting results.

Plus, there’s one more thing to worry about: not every demographic is tech-savvy enough to vote accurately or securely.

Does online voting pose a risk to your data?

Voting online isn’t riskier than, say, online shopping or having social media accounts.

In this case, the problem isn’t really privacy but security. And you might be wondering what’s all this about, especially since you don’t have to enter financial info to vote online.

Well, let’s take the people of Ecuador. Back in 2017, the personal information of almost every citizen (minors included) was leaked online. This left Ecuadorians at risk for identity theft, scams, and credit card frauds.

But how is the US handling voter data?

It’s a mixed bag, to say the least.

In June 2017, almost 200 million registered US voters’ personal information was accidentally exposed online due to misconfigured settings.

Security risk analysts found that around 1.1 terabytes of data were available to download, unprotected by a password.

The leak revealed:

      • Names
      • Dates of birth
      • Addresses
      • Voter registration details
      • Social media posts.

This information was supposed to be protected by Deep Root Analytics, an analytics company, and two other contractors.

Many expected the leak to be a wake-up call, a reminder that online voting is not to be toyed with and needs robust security measures in place.

And yet, it happened again.

In October 2020, the alleged voters’ data of nearly 15 million people in Florida was found on a Russian hacking site.

Many scratched their head in confusion because, as of December 2019, there were only about 13.5 million registered voters in Florida.

Some think that the data is duplicated or even entirely false. Others believe the data might not necessarily be tied to Florida voters alone.

Almost 40 data points were shared online, including:

      • Names
      • Dates of birth
      • Phone numbers
      • Email addresses
      • Voter IDs
      • Voter statuses
      • Residence addresses
      • Mailing addresses
      • Race
      • Gender
      • Registration dates
      • Party affiliations
      • Precincts
      • School board districts
      • House, Senate, and Congressional districts.

It’s still unclear who is behind the leak or where the data comes from.

So far, the Florida Division of Elections has not made a comment.

But with the presidential elections just around the corner, the leak has sparked concerns around the security of online ballots.

While the idea of online voting seems popular, especially among young voters, some are still skeptical that it can ever be securely done.

Protecting your data online

We live in the age of data mining. Information is more often than not collected and stored in databases, but they can be unsecured, improperly configured, or prone to vulnerabilities.

Malicious parties would have little difficulty in getting their hands on the information stored in these databases.

And, in the context of digital voting, things would not look very different.

So, take care of your privacy, and take precautions to safeguard your data and keep it away from prying eyes.

Here’s what you can do for more peace of mind:

  1. Use a VPN. It’s a simple way to hide your IP, encrypt your traffic, and protect your online anonymity.
  2. Protect your router and other IoT devices. Secure them with passwords and consider using encryption.
  3. Use unique and secure passwords for all your accounts. And to keep them in check, head for a password manager.
  4. Keep an eye out for phishing scams. Don’t open suspicious emails or links, and never give out your credit card or bank details online.
  5. Use an antivirus. Preferably one that comes with some web filtering system to keep shady websites at bay.
  6. Use two-factor authentication (2FA). This security measure can prevent unwanted access to your accounts and devices.
  7. Update your software and firmware. Updates usually come with security patches that can be essential to prevent someone from exploiting vulnerabilities to get access to your system.
  8. Clear your cache and cookies. Never underestimate how much your browser’s cache knows about you.
  9. Avoid using unsecured public Wi-Fis. Their setup makes it very easy for hackers and infiltrators to snoop on network traffic.
  10. Back up your data regularly. Some types of malware, like spyware and ransomware, are designed to render your device unusable. But having a back-up makes your life easier after a factory reset.
 

What do you think of online voting? Is this the future, or do you feel more comfortable voting by mail? Let me know in the comments below.

Until next time, stay safe and secure!

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