Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Barbara Simons

When will we have truly electronic voting?

When will there be an app to cast a vote in a US election?

So at a time when we can see video shot by a robot on Mars, when there are cars that can drive themselves, and when we can deposit checks on our smartphones without going to a bank, why do most people still have to go to a polling place to vote?

That’s because, security experts say, letting people vote through their phones or computers could have disastrous consequences.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Barbara Simons, a former I.B.M. researcher and co-author of the book “Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count?”

Ms. Simons then ran through a list of calamitous events that could occur if we voted by Internet. Viruses could be used to take over voters’ phones; rogue countries like Iran could commandeer computers and change results without our knowledge; government insiders could write software that decides who wins; denial-of-service attacks could take down the Internet on Election Day.

“It’s a national security issue,” Ms. Simons said. “We really don’t want our enemies to be able to determine our government for us — or even our friends for that matter.”


Ronald L. Rivest, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that for now, the best technology out there is the one we’ve been using.

“Winston Churchill had a famous saying that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried before,” Mr. Rivest said. “You can apply the same statement to paper ballots, which are the worst form of voting, but better than all the others that have been tried before.”

Mr. Rivest, who is the R in the name of the RSA encryption system, which is used by government institutions and banks, said that if things went wrong on Election Day, chaos could ensue, because doubts about the results would rattle the foundations of our democracy.

“One of the main goals of the election is to produce credible evidence to the loser that he’s really lost,” he said. “When you have complicated technology, you really do have to worry about election fraud.”

So what’s the solution? Ms. Simons and Mr. Rivest both seemed certain that the best alternative was to stick with a technology that’s a couple of thousand years old. “Paper,” they both said, as if reading from the same script. “Paper ballots.”

Voting by mail, which some cite as an option, lets people avoid the lines, but it is not so easy on the vote counters. In states where this is allowed, envelopes have to be opened and ballots sorted into precincts. Then the signature needs to be matched with that on the voter registration card. None of this is terribly efficient.

So in 10, 20 or 100 years, when our cars have been replaced with self-flying spaceships, robots take our children to school, and our smartphones are chips in our heads, will we still be using a pen and paper to choose our president? I sure hope not.

I presume the people who object to early voting are sputtering incoherently about now. There’s a fundamental tradeoff in the computing world between convenience and security. That which is more convenient is inherently less secure, and vice versa. I would not be so arrogant as to contradict Simons or Rivest on the concerns about conducting an election over the Internet or via smartphone. But I have a real hard time believing that forty years from now when my daughters are my age that they’ll be voting by the same means I do today. What do you think?