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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Why Can’t We Vote Online Yet?

Whether you're prepared for it or not, the United States is hurtling toward another presidential election. Like just about everything in 2020, the voting process has been disrupted by the pandemic. More people than ever are planning to avoid polling places and vote by mail. This has led to a very loud, very political debate about public safety, potential voter fraud, and the role technology plays in the voting process.

This week on Gadget Lab, we talk with WIRED senior writer Lily Hay Newman about election security and why the US is so far behind other countries when it comes to online voting.

Show Notes

Read Lily’s guide on how to vote by mail here. Read more about the partisan hand-wringing about mail-in voting here. Follow all of WIRED’s 2020 election coverage here.


Lily recommends the US Election Assistance Commission’s state-by-state registration and voting guide. Mike recommends the memoir Year of the Monkey, by Patti Smith. Lauren recommends these long-sleeve stretch-knit bamboo pajamas from Cozy Earth.

LIly Hay Newman can be found on Twitter @lilyhnewman. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman (@alexkapelman). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

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[Gadget Lab intro theme music]

Lauren Goode: Hi everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I'm Lauren Goode. I'm a senior writer at WIRED, and I'm joined remotely by my cohost, WIRED senior editor, Michael Calore. Hey Mike.

Michael Calore: Hello. Hi.

LG: I don't know about you, but I'm really missing the studio.

MC: Yeah. Especially the lighting.

LG: Well, the lighting was probably not its best feature, but the whole equipment thing and sitting in a room, talking to people in real life. I miss that.

MC: Breathing the same air.

LG: We're also joined remotely this week by WIRED senior writer, Lily Hay Newman. Hey Lily.

Lily Hay Newman: Hey, sorry. I'm not breathing the same air as you guys.

LG: We regret that as well. Lily is coming to us from New York City where she is I think hanging out in some sort of closet right now, it appears, for best sound. Is that correct?

LN: Don't blow my cover, Lauren.

LG: You would not be the first podcaster to be hanging out in a very small enclosed space, surrounded by clothing and carpeting, but we really appreciate you coming on the show this week. Today, we are talking about voting. In case you haven't heard, there's a big election coming up in America. Later in the show, we're going to talk about why it's 2020 and apps and online voting systems still aren't really a thing here in the US.

But first, we're going to talk about voting by mail because that's the most critical thing to address this year. Due to the pandemic, a lot of people are likely going to avoid going to polling places in person. That means that votes cast by mail-in ballots are expected to be higher than ever. And that has led to an intensely political back and forth about election security, the role of the postal service, and public safety. So Lily, you wrote a guide to voting by mail for wired.com. Should we actually be concerned about voter fraud via mail-in ballots?

LN: I think the rumors of vote by mail's insecurity have been greatly overstated. There are some things to worry about. As with any system, there's no perfect security. There's always considerations and extra steps you want to take, an extra vigilance, all that stuff. But vote by mail is very secure. From everything we know from all the studies that have been done, rates of voter fraud are extremely, extremely, extremely low. And I think relevant to the recent discourse, something that's really important is that when there is a very highly publicized example of mail fraud by mail schemes, the reason it's so significant and noteworthy is because it's rare and because crucially it was discovered.

So, though you don't know what you don't know, what we do know is that when there are examples of vote by mail fraud that get too big or are too significant, they get caught and then we hear about them and then they get used as examples of mail fraud. So I just think it's important to understand that cycle that plays out that it's actually a good thing when we find out about these examples and when they're stopped. It doesn't mean that the system is totally insecure and needs to be thrown out or something.

LG: Lily, how do you explain the political frenzy around and voting when in fact in the past there's been evidence showing that mail-in voting doesn't really benefit one party over another?

LN: Yeah. All I can really say is that it seems to be fully led by President Donald Trump. I normally would not want to sort of point fingers or assign blame, but I just don't think that's a partisan statement. I think he is the person bringing this stuff up and making these accusations. And the President of the United States is obviously incredibly influential and has a huge platform. But I honestly don't really hear it coming from anywhere else. I hear it coming from President Trump and then his allies will sometimes repeat some of the things you've said, but yeah, that's the only explanation. I don't know. I'm curious. Have you guys heard anything else because I am not hearing it from election officials, not hearing it from secretaries of state or other top election officials, not hearing it from researchers?

MC: Yeah. I haven't been hearing anything either. And the curious part about it is that when politicians do talk about mail-in voting being somehow insecure or somehow there's the chance that your vote is going to be compromised. The thing that's missing a lot of the time, almost all the time is exactly how that's done. So I'm really curious if you've seen any of these scams, how they're perpetrated. What happens? How does a vote that's mailed become lost or miscounted?

LN: I think some of the examples, such as there was an incident in Patterson, New Jersey that President Trump for a while was a fan of bringing up. A lot of the examples there really aren't like fraudulent ballots necessarily or voting for someone else even or impersonation, which is sort of the big concern. A lot of the incidents that come up are like breaking the rules about how you collect the ballots. So in that situation in Patterson, what was suspicious was that there were hundreds of ballots all stuffed into the same post box, same day, things like that. And so the accusation there isn't even that the ballots aren't legitimate. It's that they were collected illegally by a third party. We're not really supposed to go around and solicit each other's ballots or sort of take it upon ourselves to collect each other's ballots. The idea is everybody's supposed to submit their own.

So people should not break the law and improperly collect ballots. But in terms of the actual impersonation, if you were trying to commit mail fraud, you'd really have to go box to box, like mailbox to mailbox, pull out everyone's absentee ballot on the day that it arrives, know what their signature looks like, know what their social security number looks like. And some of that information is available online. For example, stolen social security numbers are available in criminal forums, things like that. But how are you going to predict whose ballot you're going to be able to steal? It's just when you actually start thinking about the logistics of carrying out such a scam, it's pretty tough. The best idea I can think of is compromising the ballots at the source, like where they're printed or when they're still in the hands of election officials.

But the challenge with that, the reason that's not just a shoo-in either is that election officials are professionals who are specifically trained in physical security in addition to digital security and tabulation and all the other components of their job. Physical security and ballot security are core to their profession. So this isn't just Lily got assigned to take care of the ballots when they come from the printer or something. This is professional people who have a plan for how to keep those stacks of ballots secure until they get stuffed into envelopes and mailed out. So, there's no point in the chain where it would be obvious or really simple to just make this happen in the way that the president has allege.d

LG: We all know, Lily, that you're super sketchy. You should not be giving out the ballots. I mean, you not only cover hackers, but you are a secret hacker yourself.

LN: Right. I mean, I've got all the ballots in the closet with me right now.

LG: So it seems as though we're saying that you should feel pretty secure about voting via mail-in ballot. So Lily, if someone wants to request a mail-in ballot, where do they go and what do they do?

LN: I think the crucial thing is just understanding that your vote will be counted. It will move through the mail and be secure. And if something were to happen, it would be discovered. That's the crucial thing. It's like, yes, it's not impossible that bad things could happen, but there are checks in place and it will be rectified. So I think those, yeah, both sides of that, like you're saying.

To vote by mail, to find out how to do it in your state, highly recommend the wired.com guide that breaks it down state by state. I spent many hours. It was not an army of interns. It was just me collating all the information for all the different states. And basically there's two crucial parts. You need to be registered to vote. There are some states that allow you to register on election day, same day that you're going to vote, which is great for states that offer it, but it's a minority of states. So I definitely would not rely on that. I highly, highly suggest right now, pause the podcast where you are and go register to vote.

And then the second step is in states that aren't going to send you an absentee ballot automatically or send you a vote by mail ballot, if you're in a state, that's all vote by mail anyway, if you're not going to get that, you need to request a ballot. And again, you can use our breakdown or just Google to find your state's process for requesting your ballot. And then right, as soon as you get it, mail it back in right away immediately. Pause whatever podcast you're listening to when you get it. Hope it's the Gadget Lab podcast and mail it back in. And also if you voted in previous elections, you probably already registered. So actually, it's not even as many steps as it sounds.

LG: One more quick question before we go to a break. Lots of people are moving around right now despite the fact that we're living through a pandemic. According to a new report from the Pew Research Center, one in five adults in the US say that they've changed residence or know someone who did during this time. And so I'm wondering what voting means for people who are moving around. Is there a difference between requesting an absentee ballot, if you want to make sure that you're able to vote for your previous state, if you move states? Should you just move and re-register quickly? How does that actually work?

LN: Right. That's a great question and I think important to start thinking now for your own case because there are a few factors that would determine how you deal with that. And especially because of state by state laws, I can't give one blanket answer. But one thing I would sort of think about is there are states that vote by mail in every election, but all the other states that are doing vote by mail are doing expanded absentee by mail for the purpose of this election. Most of those states are saying you don't need an excuse because your excuse is the pandemic, and that's just kind of universal.

My best piece of advice would be to, maybe if you're in that situation, take the pandemic out of it for a second and just think about what's actually happening. Am I going to be "traveling" during the election? Is that my issue or did I move? Is that my issue? And then sort of figure it out from there. If you moved, hopefully there's time to register in your new state. If you're sort of only temporarily moved and it's more like we could call it traveling, I would vote absentee in the way that your state allows.

LG: All right, we're going to take a quick break and come back with more about voting in the digital age.


LG: Welcome back. So the voting we've been talking about is fairly old school. We're talking about mail-in ballots and relying on paper, actual paper in 2020. So there've been a few attempts at modernizing the voting process in the US but they largely haven't caught on. There tends to be this differing of opinions between technologists who want to modernize voting and the county officials who are ultimately responsible for deciding how we vote. There was also the disastrous use of an app that caused chaos and confusion at the Iowa Democratic caucus earlier this year. And we did a Gadget Lab podcast on that. If you go back in the feed, I'm sure you can find that to listen to. But other countries outside of the US do effectively use apps or online voting in their elections. So why can't we? Lily, what's your best response to that?

LN: Right. It feels like a pressing question because it's like, look, other countries do it. Also, we bank online. Also to have our health information and portals online. What is the deal with the voting issue, right? But the really important difference to understand and why security researchers and election officials are really wary of modernizing the system in this way that you're describing is the secret ballot, right? We have this concept in US voting that nobody is going to know who you voted for because the sanctity of the secret ballot is really important, right? And there's a really big difference between doing something totally secretly online, all digitally, where nobody can check what happened, what you said, what was recorded versus something like your bank account, where we think of it as being secret, but really your bank knows your transactions, your bank knows and what your balance is, and you know. So that's two parties who both know and have both seen these numbers and can any differences. With voting, nobody else is supposed to know.

So the problem that comes up is just like, if I vote on an app and I see on the screen that it's the vote I wanted to cast, how do I know, as soon as those packets of data leave my screen and go out into the world, how do I know that my vote was recorded, tallied in the way I think I submitted it, right? And so that's the big hurdle.

LG: How do other countries handle online voting?

LN: First of all, most of the countries are much, much, much, much, much smaller than the US. So that's just like a thing to factor in. And then second of all, some of those systems when they've been audited have major security vulnerabilities. So just because there hasn't been a known mass incident doesn't mean one couldn't happen. And in fact, some countries have had vote tampering and manipulation. So that's why people are so wary about doing it in the US, and I think the researchers I've talked to, they say, it's not impossible to devise, devise a system that would be secure enough and transparent enough, but not too transparent because we want to maintain everyone's privacy, that it would be possible to do that. But it's just a much bigger lift than what we're imagining when we say like, "Oh, an app. Oh, the blockchain." That's not the level that the project would need to be on in order to produce a system that would potentially work.

One time, I had a source compare it to the space race and to NASA and landing a man on the moon that it would need to be that level of government investment community buy in, like from the country, everyone behind it, everyone excited about it, that level of expertise. Some people have said that's an exaggeration. But my reporting has really borne it out that it is possible. We just need to imagine it on this whole other scale of investment than what we're currently thinking about.

MC: And I mean, really, you're not talking about one system. You're talking about dozens and dozens of systems, at least one for each state. You're going to be talking about a mobile app for iOS, a mobile app for Android, a web version possibly so that people who don't have smartphones can still log onto a computer and do it that way. And then that being built on top of the systems that we already have in place, in-person voting and mail-in voting, right?

LN: Yeah. Mike, that's such a great point because another thing that is really sacred in US voting is decentralized state by state control. A big difference between my analogy to NASA and what would need to happen exactly as you're saying would be an opt out for states, the opportunity to build something else. The federal government is not allowed to come in and say, "This is the system we're all going to use for voting." That is not in our constitution. So yeah. I mean, I'm not trying to sort of say it can't happen or not be hopeful. That's really what we want to emphasize. It's not to be a downer or be negative. It's just this is the reality of what it would take.

And the thing about elections is, and this goes back to what we were saying about mail ballots, you can't have a situation where you don't realize that the election was tampered with. A researcher I've spoken to a lot compared it to the barking dog model of security. It's not that problems can never arise. It's that you need to have the dog barking telling you, "Something went wrong. There's a problem. Somebody is here." That's what you really need, and that's really difficult to implement in digital systems. And this is where the tension crops up, because it feels like people are saying, "No, we just can't do this." And that's not really what they're saying, but they're saying you got to expand your mind about the reality of the difficulty.

LG: Lily, what are some of the most viable ideas or solutions you've heard around making voting digital and not only solving the complicated tech issues around it, but addressing equity issues that would inevitably emerge?

LN: Another reason this is so important is accessibility, right? One of the reasons this debate gets so heated is because it feels like some people are saying," Nope, this just can't happen" even though it would be so incredibly helpful for so many people who have accessibility issues to voting, whether it's the physical barriers or that's work schedule issues or childcare, all these things. So it can feel like that's really being ignored. And I think that's not the case, but to your point, it would need to be a system that has that accessibility piece for everyone, hopefully meaning that there is sort of a lot more equity of opportunity in terms of who can vote and making sure everyone can vote. But then also, right, what is the system that will be secure and transparent enough without being overly transparent to make this work?

And I think so two pieces. One concept is just the idea of monitoring from every angle, every software component, every piece, every line of code. However you want to think about it, there would need to be a mechanism to monitor for abnormal behavior, right? So that would be one way that you might be able to detect that something's going wrong. And then I think the other concept that holds a lot of promise is there's a lot of new types of encryption and sort of fields of study within encryption to be able to do mathematical calculations, such as adding, such as tabulating on data that never gets decrypted. So it's like it's locked in this thing that you can't read, but you can still add two pieces together and get a new total that maybe you also don't even know the total until the end or something.

So that would be a way to know that everyone's vote was private, that nobody ever knew the whole time, who voted for what. But that you can still work on the data and get a result because that's always the issue you need to bridge. Just like, well, if it's secret, how do I count it? But yeah, there is not really an easy answer to what's the promising thing.

MC: When a voting app is available and I go to the App Store and download it, does Apple get 30 percent of my vote?

LN: It sounds like they would want it from what I've heard. But you do bring up another good point that another reason this is so difficult is that we would all be doing it on our own devices. And even if the sort of backend system in the cloud or managed by your election officials, even if all of that was ultra secure, another major hurdle is, what happens if there's malware on your device? That's really the reason that going to a polling place is superior in this security model than everybody just doing whatever or mailing your ballot to the centralized counting, things like that. That's the reason we have the model we have right now is that if we all are just depending on our own devices, it's an additional layer of defense because it's like you need to defend the system in general and you also need to defend everybody's personal devices.

LG: All right. 2020 paper ballots it is.

LN: Yeah, it's daunting. But I want to point out, you guys, we already have like the coolest, most enduring amazing technology, which is paper. This is my pitch. I get a cut from the paper lobby. No. But I just, I really want to emphasize it's not old and outmoded. It's totally amazing that this can work on the scale of the US voting pool. It's awesome. So it's not all bad, you guys.

LG: And don't forget to vote. Just vote.

LN: Yeah. Just vote.

LG: No matter what you do. No matter how you do it, just vote. All right. Let's take another quick break. And then we're going to come back with recommendations.


LG: Lily, I'm going to go to you first. What's your recommendation?

LN: So there are other things in my life besides encouraging you to vote, but that's the main thing we're doing in this podcast. So my recommendation is also about how to get information on voting. If you need more assistance than what the wired.com guide can offer, there are a lot of sites that are offering sort of state by state breakdowns of how to register, how to get your ballot by mail, or how to vote in person, all those things. There's Vote.org. The secretaries of state have a guide out. But the one I like the best is the US Election Assistance Commission state-by-state guide. It breaks down everything. It has sort of the full gamut I think of things you might want to know, and it's just a drop down menu where you put in your state, and it'll spit out all the different relevant links. So that's my recommendation. And of course, once again, additional recommendation to just vote in any way.

LG: Great. Thank you so much for that. Mike, what's your recommendation?

MC: My recommendation is a book that I just read. It's called Year of the Monkey and it's a memoir by Patti Smith, Patti Smith, the singer and poet and just all around cultural bad-ass. She's written a few memoirs over the years. This one takes place entirely during the year of 2016. And it is a combination of a travel log and a dream journal and just sort of her floating around in America and in Europe, sort of living her internal life. And I'm bringing it up this week because of course, since it takes place during 2016, over the course of the book, politics start to creep in, and there's a really kind of "fun" narrative that you get to follow, well fun in quotes, I'm doing air quotes. But this narrative creeps in about America and about politics in America and about divisiveness and about toxicity.

And it's really incredible to read somebody who can seem as detached from daily life, as Patti Smith seems in the book, talk about these issues in 2016, but reading them now after we've already been through four years of this divisiveness and this toxicity. So perspective is the key word there. Really puts things into perspective. It's also just a fantastic read. It came out about a year ago or I guess about nine months ago. And I'm just getting to it now because the queue is long. But the pandemic has me reading more than ever. So that's my recommendation, Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith.

LG: Great. Is there a Patti Smith album you'd recommend listening to in the background while you read her book?

MC: I would say Waves is a good one. Of course Horses. I like Horses/Horses the live recording of Horses. That's a good one. But it's kind of hard to read anything to her audio stuff because her albums, her music albums are like poetry over rock music. So it's kind of like you have to turn that part of your brain off if you're going to be …

LG: You have to listen to one or the other.

MC: Right, right. I think they should each be experienced individually.

LN: But it's like when you put the book down, then you keep the vibes going. Keep the groove going by checking out an album.

MC: You can just hang with Patti all day.

LG: That doesn't sound like a terrible thing to do in these pandemic times.

MC: It sounds lovely.

LG: It's quite great actually.

MC: Lauren, what is your recommendation?

LG: Well, my recommendation, well, you could wear these, whether you're reading a Patti Smith book or whether you're voting by mail. It's a pair of pajamas. So my friend Shantelle recently sent me a pair of pajamas unprompted. It was a lovely surprise. I think she got the sense I was stressed and they're from Cozy Earth and they are just incredible. I feel so strongly about these pajamas. I'm alarmed by how much I love these pajamas, but I love them so much. In particular, this is the long sleeve bamboo pajama set. They are expensive. They're normally $169.

MC: Wow.

LG: Very expensive pajamas. There is a Labor Day sale where they're going to be 20 percent off and you can get them for $135. I'm not sure how long that sale's going to be going on for. I feel like I'm schilling for the company. I'm not. I've never spoken to them. All I know is that I really, really love these pajamas. They're this stretch knit fabric. They're really soft. Even if you kind of order up in size, they still fit really well and drape really nicely. They've good breathability. So they're not too hot while you're sleeping. I may or may not still be wearing the pajama pants now, not going to confirm. But I can't believe I feel so strongly about these pajamas, but I do. And I like good pajamas. I have other pajamas sets, but this is next level stuff. So Cozy Earth bamboo pajamas if you can swing the cost because they are costly. I recommend them.

MC: And they're bamboo.

LG: And they're bamboo.

MC: Which is good for the planet because bamboo grows faster than any other plant.

LG: Better for the planet, better for your sleeping.

MC: I feel like this is putting me to shame because I've really tapped into wearing my rattiness worst pajamas and clothes in the pandemic to just kind of like, I don't know, use them up or something, just get rid of them. But now I feel like maybe that's the wrong approach and I should be lounging in luxury.

LG: And it's not a terrible idea. If you're looking for a slightly less expensive pair of pajamas, I recommend Soma because I've had those for years too. And then actually my aunt sent me another pair of Soma pajamas recently. I don't know why everybody keeps sending me pajamas, but I'm not complaining about it. I really like this. But those are a little bit less expensive. I think you can find them on Amazon too. And then every so often, you got to wear like the 2008 Beijing Olympics T-shirt that has armpit stains just because.

LN: Now you're finally speaking my language.

LG: Yes. But that said, good pajamas are also good investment. So thanks to my friend for sending them. That was really, really nice. And check out Cozy Earth. All right. That's our show for this week. Thank you, Lily, for joining us.

LN: Good to be with you guys.

LG: And thanks to all of you for listening. If you have feedback, we'd love to hear from you. You can find all of us on Twitter. Just check the show notes. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth and our executive producer is Alex Kapelman. Bye for now. We'll be back next week and don't forget to vote.

[Gadget Lab outro theme music]

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